New Research Suggests that Endocannabinoid System Helps with Fertility
New evidence gathered from researchers at Bochum and Bonn, headed by Dr Hanns Hatt, has shed light on a little-known area of the endocannabinoid system that has until now been shrouded in mystery.
Dr Hatt’s team has, for the first time, produced a proof of the existence of the GPR18 receptor in sperm cells. GPR18 has for some time been presumed to be a part of the endocannabinoid system, entirely separate from the more well-known CB1 and CB2 receptors. This research provides compelling new evidence that not only is this the case, but that the receptors and their endogenous cannabinoid agonists play a key role in one of the most important biological processes necessary for procreation.
That process is known as the acrosome reaction. The researchers found that GPR18 receptors in sperm cells react to both THC and the endogenous fatty acid N-Arachidonylglycine (NAGly) – a carboxylic analog of the endocannabinoid anandamide – and when activated, trigger the acrosome reaction. During this process, the surface of the sperm is altered as it reaches the egg. Digestive enzymes are released and the sperm loses the ‘cap’ on the anterior half of its head. Without the activation of this previously unknown part of the endocannabinoid system, the sperm would not be capable of penetrating the egg, and fertilisation would be impossible.
Should the research and its findings prove to be correct, this can be considered a pretty huge breakthrough in the science of fertility. The acrosome reaction is among the best ways we have of analysing the ability of semen to fertilise an egg, and given that infertility in men is on the rise, this new understanding of the processes involved in that reaction could hardly have come at a better time.
There’s no guarantee of course that new treatments will necessarily follow this discovery, but it seems likely. Whether those treatments come from the use of endogenous, synthetic, or phyto-cannabinoids remains to be seen, but it certainly casts doubt on previous studies linking cannabis use to infertility. It seems incredibly unlikely that consuming something, which appears to play a direct role in one of the most vitally important processes linked to fertility that we know about, would cause infertility. It just doesn’t add up.
I’m speculating now, but it could well be that this ends up being much like the supposed link between cannabis and schizophrenia. For years (and to this day in many cases) the media and certain scientists reported the link between the two as if it were definitely causal, but subsequent research has led many to now believe that the relationship is far more complex than that. Many individuals suffering from schizophrenia seem to be drawn to cannabis because of the anti-psychotic properties of cannabidiol, rather than the other way around.
The ultimate illustration of this is of course the Keele University meta-analysis of cannabis use and rates of schizophrenia. Cannabis use keeps going up, whilst schizophrenia rates remain level. Clearly the relationship between the two is not as simple as one causing the other, and with this new research illuminating a key function of cannabinoids in fertility, it seems to me that it won’t be long before we start looking at this relationship a little differently too.
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