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Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD)


Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency CECD

34 Neuroendocrinology Letters Nos.1/2 Feb-Apr Vol.25, 2004 Copyright © Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172–780X Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia, or myofascial pain syndrome, is an extremely common but controversial condition, whose very basis has been questioned, particularly among neurologists [65]. Even this author must admit to past prejudice in labeling it a “semi-mythical pseudo-disease.” Notwithstanding these opinions, the condition is the most frequent diagnosis in American rheumatology practices. Bennett has provided an excellent review [66], emphasizing new insights into fibromyalgia as a condition indicative of “central sensitization” and amplification of somatic nociception.

While no clear chemical or anatomical pathology has been clarified in tender muscle points, these present a self-sustaining and amplifying influence on pain perception in the brain over time, and lead to a concomitant disturbances in restful sleep, manifestations of dysautonomia, and prevalent secondary depression.

Interestingly, the application of standard antidepressant medication to the latter, and pharmacotherapy in general, provide disappointing results in fibromyalgia treatment. Has a promising therapeutic avenue been missed?
Returning to the work of Nicolodi and Sicuteri, the “secondary hyperalgesia” manifested by an increased response to noxious stimuli in areas adjacent to the pain is common to migraine and fibromyalgia (see below).

These authors suggested NMDA blockade as an approach to pain in defects of serotonergic analgesia in fibromyalgia [67].

Several studies of Richardson and her group provide key support for a relation of fibromyalgia and similar conditions to a clinical endocannanabinoid deficiency. An initial study [68] demonstrated that intrathecal injection of SR141716A, a powerful cannabinoid antagonist/inverse agonist, resulted in thermal hyperalgesia in mice. This suggests that the endocannabinoid system regulates nociceptive thresholds, and that absence of such regulation, or endocannabinoid hypofunction, underlies hyperalgesia and related chronic pain conditions. In a subsequent study [69], oligonucleotides directed against CB1 mRNA produced significant hyperalgesia. Additionally, the hyperalgesic effect of SR141716A was blocked in a dose-dependent manner by co-administration of two NMDA receptor antagonists, again supporting tonic activity of the endocannabinoid system under normal conditions. On this basis, it was suggested that cannabinoid agonists would be applicable to treatment of chronic pain conditions unresponsive to opioid analgesics.

Further investigation demonstrated that intrathecal AEA totally blocked carrageenan-induced spinal thermal hyperalgesia, while having no effect on normal thermal sensory and antinociceptive thresholds

[70]. Additionally, AEA inhibited K+ and capsaicinevoked calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) release, and CB1 receptors were identified in rat sensory neurons and trigeminal ganglion. On this basis, the authors recommended cannabinoids for disorders driven by a primary afferent barrage (e.g., allodynia, visceral hyperalgesia, temporomandibular joint pain

(TMJ), and reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD)), and that such treatment could be effective a sub-psychoactive dosages.

Another study examined peripheral mechanisms [71], wherein AEA acted on CB1 to reduce hyperalgesia and inflammation via inhibition of CGRP neurosecretion in capsaicin activated nerve terminals. This is akin to mechanisms of “sterile inflammation” observed centrally in migraine, where CGRP is felt to be an important mediator [5]. Overall the results supported the notion that endocannabinoids modulate neurogenic inflammation through inhibition of peripheral terminal neurosecretion in capsaicin-sensitive fibers. AEA demonstrated anti-edema effects in addition to anti-hyperalgesia. Similar implications were provided by another study [72], in which WIN 55,212–2, a powerful CB1 agonist, blocked capsaicininduced hyperalgesia in rat paws. Once more, the benefit occurred at a dosage that did not produce analgesia or motor impairment, suggesting therapeutic benefit of cannabinoids without adverse effects. Similarly, local THC administration was evaluated in capsaicin-induced pain in rhesus monkeys [73], where, once more, pain was effectively reduced at low dosage, and was blocked by a CB1 antagonist. Another concept that is important to understanding of fibromyalgia is “wind-up,” a central sensitization of posterior horn neurons in pain pathways that occurs secondarily to tonic impulses form nociceptive afferent C fibers dependent on NMDA and substance P synaptic mechanisms in the spinal cord [74]. Similar mechanisms were implicated in TMJ dysfunction and RSD/CRP syndromes. The authors felt that some unknown peripheral tonic mechanism maintains allodynia, hyperalgesia, central sensitization and enhanced wind-up. Unfortunately, an obvious explanation was overlooked. In a previous publication [75], it was demonstrated that of wind-up was decreased in dose-dependent fashion by WIN 55,212 in spinal wide dynamic range and nociceptive-specific neurons. Thus, cannabinoids were able to suppress facilitation of spinal responses after repetitive noxious stimuli without impairment of non-nociceptive functions.

On a practical level, once more there have been no formal clinical trials of cannabis or THC in treatment of fibromyalgia. However, 21 California patients listed fibromyalgia and 11 myofascial pain (1.3% of a clinical population of 2480 subjects) as primary diagnoses leading to their usage of clinical cannabis [63]. Anecdotal reports to this author and other clinicians support unique efficacy of cannabis beyond conventional pharmacotherapy for alleviation of pain, dysphoria and sleep disturbances.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) IBS is another difficult clinical syndrome for patients and their physicians. It is characterized by fluctuating symptoms of gastrointestinal pain, spasm, distention, and varying degrees of constipation or especially diarrhea. These may be triggered by infection,

Ethan B. Russo

Neuroendocrinology Letters Nos.1/2 Feb-Apr Vol.25, 2004 Copyright © Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172–780X 35 but dietary indiscretions also figure prominently in discrete attacks. Although many clinicians regard it as a “diagnostic wastebasket,” irritable bowel syndrome represents the most frequent referral diagnosis for American gastroenterologists. Once more, a wide variety of treatments including atropinic agents, antidepressants and others affecting a myriad of neurotransmitter systems are prescribed, often with inadequate clinical benefits.
That endocannabinoids are important in GI function was powerfully underlined by the fact that 2- arachidonylglycerol (2-AG) was first isolated in canine gut [76].
In a recent review [77], the concept of “functional” bowel disorders as disturbances displaying “visceral hypersensitivity” was emphasized, involving a veritable symphony of neuroactive and pro-inflammatory modulators. In the susceptible subject, these lead to gastrointestinal allodynia and hyperalgesia to stimuli that would not discomfit the unaffected individual.

The role of vanilloid mechanisms in IBS was also explored, and it is worth emphasizing that Anandamide is an endogenous agonist at VR1 receptors, as is the phytocannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) [78]. Repetitive VR1 stimulation rapidly produces a sensory neuron refractory state that would be a clinical advantage in treatment of visceral hypersensitivity. Pertwee has examined the relationship of cannabinoidsto gastrointestinal function in depth [79]. To summarize: The enteric nervous systems of mammals express CB1 and stimulation depresses gastrointestinal motility, especially through inhibition of contractile neurotransmitter release. Observed effects include delayed gastric emptying, some decrease in peptic acid production, and slowed enteric motility, inhibition of stimulated acetylcholine release, peristalsis, and both cholinergic and non-adrenergic non-cholinergic (NANC) contractions of smooth muscle, whether circular or longitudinal. These effects are mediated at the brain level as well as in the GI tract (This supports a chestnut frequently invoked by this author, ‘The brain and the gut speak the same language.”). These effects are opposed by CB1 antagonists (e.g., SR141716A).

This would strongly support the notion that GI motility is under tonic control of the endocannabinoid system.

The latter concept was reinforced by additional investigation from the same laboratory [80], in which it was demonstrated that the virtually all of the immunoreactive myenteric neurons in the ganglia of rat and guinea pig expressed CB1 receptors, and that there was a close correlation of such receptors to fibers labeled for synaptic protein, suggesting a fundamental role in neurotransmitter release. Additionally, it has been shown that chronic intestinal inflammation results in an up-regulation or sensitization of cannabinoid receptors

[81]. CBD has little effect on intestinal motility on its own, but synergizes the effect of THC in slowing transit of a charcoal meal when used in concert [82].

In the basis of available data, Di Carlo and Izzo recommended the application of cannabinoid drugs in treatment of IBS in humans [83]. To date, those studies have not eventuated, but cannabis has a long history in treating cholera, intestinal colic and related disorders (reviewed in [84]), and cannabis figures prominently in IBS treatment in testimonials on the Internet. Though anecdotal, reports suggest unique efficacy of symptomatic relief at cannabis dosages that do not impair activities of daily living. In comparison, recent trends in pharmacotherapy provide interesting contrasts. Alosetron, a 5-HT3 receptor antagonist marketed for females with diarrhea-predominant IBS produces only a 12–17% therapeutic gain [85], and was temporarily removed from the American market due to fatal cases of ischemic colitis with attendant obstipation. Tegaserod, a 5-HT4 receptor agonist marketed to women with constipation-predominant IBS, is reportedly well tolerated, but provides only a 5–15% improvement over placebo [85]. This “pushpull” dichotomy of serotonergic function in IBS is strongly suggestive that such efforts are barking up the wrong neurotransmitter tree. Rational analysis suggests that endocannabinoids may well be the more likely therapeutic neuromodulatory target, and that phytocannabinoid treatment might represent a more efficacious and safer therapeutic approach. In particularly severe IBS cases, the employment of a foaming rectal preparation of a whole cannabis extract might be considered.

Comorbidities of Migraine, Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Further examination of pertinent literature supports that there are very interesting relationships between migraine, fibromyalgia and IBS. Recently, a syndrome of cutaneous allodynia associated with migraine has been reported [86], and experimentally, repetitive noxious stimulation of the skin in migraineurs between attacks facilitates pain perception [87]. Nicolodi, Sicuteri et al. similarly noted a decreased pain threshold in migraineurs tested with over-distension of upper extremity veins, but not mere pressure from a sphygmomanometer cuff [88], meriting a label for migraine as a “visceral systemic sensory disorder.” The same team noted a baseline fragility of serotonergic systems in migraine and fibromyalgia [89], plus the co-occurrence of primary headache in 97% of 201 fibromyalgia patients. In a later study [67], they supported the concept that both disorders represented a failure of serotonergic analgesia and NMDA-mediated neuronal plasticity. Other observations included the induction of fibromyalgic symptoms by the drug fenclonine in migraineurs but not others, and the production of migraine de novo in fibromyalgia patients without prior history after administration of nitroglycerine 0.6 mg sublingually. Similarly, an American group [90] examined 101 patients with the transformed migraine form of chronic daily headache, and were able to diagnose 35.6% as having comorbid fibromyalgia. Similarly, a high lifetime prevalence of migraine, IBS, depression and panic disorder were observed in 33 women meeting American College of Rheumatology criteria of fibromyalgia [91].

Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD)

36 Neuroendocrinology Letters Nos.1/2 Feb-Apr Vol.25, 2004 Copyright © Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172–780X Sperber et al. examined separate groups of IBS and fibromyalgia patients [92]. Of the IBS cohort, 31.6% had fibromyalgia with significant numbers of tender muscle points compared to controls. Similarly, 32% of fibromyalgia patients met diagnostic criteria of IBS. In addition to these correlations, Bennett added irritable bladder syndrome to the comorbidities of fibromyalgia [66], supporting a concomitant visceral hyperalgesia

[93; 94] in a condition where cannabis extracts have already proven efficacious [95]. Most recently, in an experimental protocol, it was demonstrated that IBS patients displayed cutaneous hyperalgesia that was suppressed by temporary rectal anesthesia with lidocaine [96], indicating central sensitization.

Broadening the Concept of Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency

One may quickly see that certain patients display symptoms of all three disorders, or additional ones considered “functional.” With accrual of sufficient numbers of complaints lacking objective medical support, one assigns the label of somatization disorder.

Given the above data, however, one might reasonably ask three questions in such contexts: 1) Are there as yet unelucidated biochemical explanations for these disorders? 2) Might endocannabinoid deficiency explain their pathophysiology? 3) Are the symptoms alleviated by clinical cannabis? Globus hystericus and similar symptoms are frequently relegated to the psychogenic realm, but as a spasmodic disorder, it may well represent an endocannabinoid deficiency (CECD), as muscle tone (and tremor associated with demyelination) have been demonstrated to be under tonic endocannabinoid control in experimental animals [97]. Cannabis extracts have already proven efficacious in treatment of spasticity [98; 99].

Similarly, premature ejaculation in men is conventionally perceived as “psychological.” This seems less tenable, when anecdotes support that cannabis prolongs latency, and proof is apparent in the dose responsive delay in ejaculation in rats noted in experiments with HU 210, a powerful CB1 agonist [100].

A more obvious set of correlating conditions would be those of causalgia, allodynia and phantom limb pain, where application of cannabis based medicine extracts has already proven medically effective [99;

101]. Perhaps it will be demonstrable in the future that such conditions are associated with focal or spinal CECD states. It has long been known that cannabinoids lower intraocular pressure in glaucoma (reviewed [102]), but only recently noted that that the mechanism is under tonic endocannabinoid control. Glaucoma also represents a vascular retinopathy for which cannabis may be neuroprotective. Perhaps an endocannabinoid deficiency is operative here as well.

Cannabis has had numerous historical applications to obstetrics and gynecology (reviewed [103]). This suggests usage of cannabinoid treatment in spasmodic dysmenorrhea, hyperemesis gravidarum, and regulation of the uterine milieu in fertilization and unexplained fetal wastage, where endocannabinoid mechanisms have been demonstrated or implicated. Further investigation may shed light on whether dysregulation of the system underlies their pathophysiology.

In the pediatric realm, the entity of infantile colic has remained enigmatic. This disturbing anomaly is associated with apparent visceral sensitivity and distinct dysphoria, and is frequently medically recalcitrant to even desperate treatment measures with medications with serious adverse effect profiles. This author posits this to be another developmental endocannabinoid deficiency state that is likely amenable to phytocannabinoid treatment.

Endocannabinoid mechanisms also regulate bronchial function [104], and therapeutic efficacy in asthma treatment with cannabis preparations has been long known [105]. Based on similar analyses of the multi-organ involvement of cystic fibrosis [106], Fride has proposed endocannabinoid deficiencies as underlying the pathophysiology of that disorder, and its treatment with phytocannabinoids. In the psychiatric realm, bipolar disorder has been therapeutically recalcitrant to high dose antidepressants, but anecdotal data support cannabis efficacy [107]. Whether endocannabinoid tone is too low in the disorder would be conjectural at this time, but in the instance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such a foundation seems likely, as endocannabinoids have been demonstrated as essential to the extinction of aversive memories in experimental animals [108].

Recent work by Wallace et al. has also demonstrated that convulsive thresholds are also under endocannabinoid control [109; 110], and that THC prevents 100% of subsequent seizures, far in excess of the capabilities of phenobarbital and phenytoin.

Affected rats demonstrated both acute increases in endocannabinoid production and a long-term up-regulation of CB1 production as apparent compensatory effects counteracting glutamate excitotoxicity. Based on this, one might conjecture that similar changes accrue when seizures are employed therapeutically as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), in treatment of intractable depression. It seems that the resultant memory loss and prolonged improvement in mood may well be attributable to an increase in endocannabinoid levels rectifying their previous inadequacy.

Recent theory on depression suggests that mere deficiencies of serotonin and norepinephrine may be insufficient explanations of the disorder, but rather, innate neuroplasticity is inherently impaired and requires specific treatment [111]. Cannabinoids certainly seem to enhance that plasticity with their neuroprotective abilities [112; 113], and should be further explored therapeutically.

The apoptotic and anti-angiogenic properties of endo- and phytocannabinoids in various cancers (reviewed [114; 115]) raise the hypothesis that certain people who are especially susceptible to malignancy may be endocannabinoid deficient.

Ethan B. Russo

Neuroendocrinology Letters Nos.1/2 Feb-Apr Vol.25, 2004 Copyright © Neuroendocrinology Letters ISSN 0172–780X 37


Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency:

Is It a Provable Concept?

The preceding material has pertained to conjectural and experimental evidence of a conceptual alternative biochemical explanation for certain disease manifestations, but one must ask how these would obtain?

Baker et al. have described how endocannabinoids may demonstrate an impairment threshold if too high, and a range of normal function below which a deficit threshold may be crossed [112]. Syndromes of CECD may be congenital or acquired. In the former case, one could posit that genetically-susceptible individuals might produce inadequate endocannabinoids, or that their degradation is too rapid. The same conditions might be acquired in injury or infection. Unfortunately, the regulation of endocannabinoid synthesis and degradation are far from fully elucidated (reviewed [116]). While a single enzyme, Anandamide synthase, catalyzes AEA production, its degradation by fatty acid amidohydrolase (FAAH), is shared with many substrates. To complicate matters, an endocannabinoid with antagonistic properties at CB1 called virodhamine (virodha, Sanskrit for “opposition”) has recently been discovered [117]. Further research may shed light on these relationships.

In the meantime, a clinical agent that modifies endocannabinoid function will soon be clinically available in the form of cannabidiol. Recent research has demonstrated that although THC does not share VR1 agonistic activity with AEA, CBD does so to a similar degree as capsaicin [78]. What is more, CBD inhibits uptake of the endocannabinoid anandamide (AEA), and weakly inhibits its hydrolysis. The presence of this component in available cannabis based medicine extracts portends to vastly extend the clinical applications and therapeutic efficacy of this re-emerging modality [118–120].

It is highly likely that additional regulatory roles for endocannabinoids will be discovered for this neuroand immunomodulatory system. Some simple human experiments may be valuable, such as cerebrospinal fluid assay of AEA and 2-AG before and after ECT treatment. It is likely in the future that positron emission tomography (PET) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for cannabinoid ligands may clarify these concepts.

This article has examined the inter-relationships of three clinical syndromes and biochemical basis I endocannabinoid function, as well as reflecting on other conditions that may display similar correlations.

Only time and the scientific method will ascertain whether a new paradigm is applicable to human physiology and treatment of its derangements. Our insight into these possibilities is dependent on the contribution of one unique healing plant; for clinical cannabis has become a therapeutic compass to what modern medicine fails to cure.


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