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ERC grant will investigate the influence of cannabinoids on our minds and bodies

Little is known about how the active ingredients in cannabis influence the interaction between brain and body. With an ERC grant of DKK 11 million, AIAS Fellow Micah G. Allen will address foundational questions about how cannabinoids influence our minds and bodies to improve future therapeutic use of the compounds.

2020.09.03 | Lena Bering

Photo: ERC grantee Micah G. Allen. Credit: Lundbeckfonden.

After decades of criminalization, cannabinoids such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are now popping up everywhere – in new medicines, in food, and even in some cosmetics. But how do cannabinoids actually influence our brain and body?

Much of what we know today about these compounds comes from neurobiological studies of the endocannabinoid system in animals. Additionally, clinical research suggests that cannabinoids offer promising new treatments for mood and affective disorders, addiction, chronic pain and fatigue, and inflammatory illnesses.

However, much still remains unknown about how these compounds influence the neural or embodied processes, which underlie conscious feelings of emotion, pain, or motivation. This not only limits our ability to design effective cannabinoid-based treatments, but also to negotiate the rising influence of cannabis in our society.

Using cutting-edge tools to address fundamental questions

This week, AIAS Fellow and Associate Professor Micah G. Allen from the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies and Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN) at Aarhus University has been awarded a five-year ERC Starting Grant for his project ‘CANNABODIES: Modelling the Influence of Cannabinoids on the Embodied Mind’. The project will use cutting-edge tools from neuroimaging, computational psychiatry, and psychology to address foundational questions about how THC and CBD influence our self-awareness and decision-making. 

“Answering these and similar questions is more important than ever, as the recreational use, legalization, and medicalization of cannabis continue to rise. It is therefore imperative that we investigate both the positive and negative effects and begin to build an understanding of how exactly those effects are brought about,” says ERC grantee Dr Allen.

Building on the Visceral Mind

The ERC project will enable Micah to further build his research group at Aarhus University, broadening their ongoing work investigating interoception, ‘gut-feelings’, and brain-body interaction to the unique pharmacology of cannabinoids. In this ongoing work, Dr Allen’s lab is currently conducting the Visceral Mind Project, a Lundbeck Foundation supported investigation of brain-body interaction in the general Danish population. Using scientific tools developed as part of The Visceral Mind Project, in CANNABODIES, Dr Allen’s lab will explain how cannabinoids alter the neural mechanisms that give rise to our embodied and emotional selves, across four key psychological domains: interoception, emotion, motivation, and pain.

“Mapping the influence of cannabinoids on each of these domains will enable us to understand the specific ways in which THC and CBD change our behavior. The results of these studies will in turn guide future clinical investigations in persons who suffer from known deficits in these areas. Further, by pooling data across all domains, we deliver the largest single neuroimaging study of cannabinoid mechanisms to date,” Dr Allen explains regarding the potential impact of the ERC project.

Research idea formed at AIAS

Dr Allen is both a research group leader in computational neuroimaging at Aarhus University, but also holds a fellowship at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies – an Institute that brings researchers from all disciplines together in an environment that fosters intellectual freedom and creativity.

“The principal idea for the ERC project came from an AIAS Fellows’ Seminar with Dr Sâmia Joca who presented her fascinating work on the neurobiology and anti-depressant potential of CBD. That talk was a major ‘aha!’ moment for me – I was so excited about the future possibilities. Sâmia and I formed a lasting collaboration, which led to the pilot data that the project reviewers praised.

It is an example of just how powerful it can be, when you bring researchers together from different disciplines and give them academic freedom. Sâmia and I are looking forward to the many future collaborations and exciting translational research that this project will bring,” Micah explains about the formation of this new project.

About the ERC Starting Grants

The ERC grant is awarded by the European Research Council to support talented early-career scientists with a scientific track record showing great promise and an excellent research proposal. ERC grantees have already produced excellent supervised work, and are ready to work independently and show potential to become a research leader.

More about the 2020 ERC recipients: https://erc.europa.eu/news/StG-recipients-2020

Engage with Micah on Twitter

https://twitter.com/micahgallen

Keep up to date with this lab, the Embodied Computation Group

https://twitter.com/visceral_mind

Contact

Associate Professor Micah Allen,
AIAS Fellow, Lundbeck Foundation Fellow
Phone: +45 31 71 12 86
micah@aias.au.dk

Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies (AIAS) and
Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN)/MINDLab
The Department of Clinical Medicine
Aarhus University
Denmark 

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