Yale digs into the science of cannabis

As states nationwide legalize the sale of cannabis, a new Yale center led by Deepak Cyril D’Souza will study its effects on the brain and mental health.
A brain surrounded by cannabis plants

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

As many U.S. states adopt policies that legalize the commercialization of cannabis, Yale School of Medicine recently announced the creation of the new Yale Center for the Science of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, which will investigate the acute and chronic effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on neurodevelopment and mental health. Its inaugural director will be Deepak Cyril D’Souza, the Albert E. Kent Professor of Psychiatry and an expert in the pharmacology of cannabinoids.

Deepak Cyril D’Souza
Deepak Cyril D’Souza (Photo by Allie Barton)

The new center comes as retail cannabis sales begin in Connecticut. Twenty-one states have legalized the sale of recreational marijuana.

D’Souza recently sat down with Yale News to discuss the goals of the new center, what he aims to achieve as director, and how the public can get involved.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

For starters, can you explain the difference between “cannabis” and “cannabinoids”?

Deepak Cyril D’Souza: Cannabis contains a number of chemicals including cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenoids. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the main psychoactive effects of cannabis, is a cannabinoid. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body. CBD [cannabidiol] is another cannabinoid present in cannabis plants, but it does not produce the typical psychoactive effects produced by THC.

Why launch the center now?

D’Souza: With the evolving landscape of cannabis, now is a good time. Connecticut recently started to retail cannabis, and in states across the country laws have been changing to make it more available. There are also changes in the potency and availability of cannabis and cannabis derivatives. More people are using it and it’s only reasonable for us to assume that it will trickle down to young people, just as tobacco and alcohol have.

Have the changing laws made it easier to study cannabis?

D’Souza: There have been regulatory obstacles in the past and hopefully with some of these changes, it becomes easier for more investigators to do this kind of work.

What are your goals as director?

D’Souza: One is to bring people together. An important aspect of a center is to bring people who might have complementary interests and skillsets together in a way that may not have been previously possible. I’d like to create a forum where on a regular basis people can come together to discuss ongoing projects and avenues for collaboration.

A second goal is to create a center that’s self-sustaining. You need resources to support a center and while the dean’s office and chair of psychiatry have generously contributed funding to start a pilot program, we’d like to submit a large grant application in two to three years. That kind of grant would sustain the center over a greater period of time.

What sorts of questions will center researchers pursue?

D’Souza: Right now, the center has a broad interest in the impact of cannabis on the developing brain and on mental health. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other topics of interest and relevance, and as we greenlight pilot projects, the center’s goals may become more focused.

But we’ll approach questions from different angles. For instance, there are observational studies we can do with humans and experimental studies that we cannot. So that’s where complementary approaches come in, where animal studies or studies in brain organoids become relevant and complementary to human work.

How will projects and researchers become affiliated with the center?

D’Souza: I assembled a group of researchers at Yale who do everything from basic research to clinical research who will work with me to review applications for pilot funding. We hope to announce that process over the next few weeks.

Changes in policies related to recreational cannabis are happening fast. What would you like the public to know about the center?

D’Souza: At the end of the day, we are doing this to generate the highest quality information that people can use to make decisions at many different levels — individuals, towns, public health departments, states, for example.

I’ve already received emails from people in the community asking for more information about the center and its goals. Some people have asked if the center is going to be for or against cannabis. And my answer is that we just want to collect information on the science of cannabis and cannabinoids. We want to advance the science.

People have also asked how they can get involved. And while it’s a little premature for that, once we have studies approved by our institutional review boards, there will be opportunities for people to participate.

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Media Contact

Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643