In what is believed to be the largest private gift yet to support scientific research on cannabis, a donor is giving $9 million to support Harvard and MIT work on cannabis and its effects on the brain.
The money comes from the marijuana industry itself, in a way. The donor, Manhattan-based investor Bob Broderick, made tens of millions of dollars by investing in the legal marijuana industry in Canada, he says.
Now, as states around this country legalize marijuana, he's funneling some of that money to help fill what's widely seen as an urgent need for solid research on how cannabis affects the brain.
"I saw an opportunity to take a kind of a leadership position in getting these two great cultural institutions involved in the discussion of cannabis in the country," he says.
He also wants to combat any lingering taboo against doing research on cannabis, Broderick says.
"People take risks when they say, 'I'm going to start doing cannabis work,' " he says. "For a young researcher at MIT or Harvard to say, 'I'm going to pivot my career and study the effects of cannabis,' I don't think that's something that would have happened five years ago."
But now, he says, he can offer money "from the cannabis world" that can go back into learning more about cannabis products. "And that's going to be good for all of us," he adds. "A majority of Americans live in a regulatory environment that has either medical or recreational cannabis."
There's a lot to learn. We know incredibly little about the cannabis compounds called cannabinoids, says Harvard Medical School professor of neurobiology Bruce Bean.
"Two of them have been studied in some detail — THC and CBD," he says. "Even for those, I have to say our knowledge is very, very sparse in terms of how they actually have their effects on the brain. But for many of the other hundred cannabinoids or so we know — we really know nothing."
We don't even really understand how cannabis can help users with their pain and sleep problems, he says.
Cannabis companies have been funding clinical research aimed at showing how cannabis can be used to treat certain medical conditions, Broderick says. But they haven't been backing research to understand the basic biology of cannabis.
"My thought is that this is the largest gift to support cannabis research, but it's not going to be the largest for long."Donor Bob Broderick
Federal science authorities have called for major new research on the potential benefits and harms of cannabis use. The National Institutes of Health are supporting more than $140 million of research on cannabinoids.
But support from private donors has been slower to roll in. Late last year, Inside Philanthropy reported on a gift of nearly $5 million to support cannabis research at the University of California San Diego, under the headline "Where Most Donors Fear To Tread."
That's surely changing, Broderick says: "My thought is that this is the largest gift to support cannabis research, but it's not going to be the largest for long."
Possible Benefits And Harms
In the darkened microscope room of an MIT lab, researcher Amanda Vernon is scrutinizing a screen full of brightly colored blobs, representing a tiny piece of a mouse brain.
"We're very, very zoomed in," she says. "This is a hugely magnified image, so this red is one individual cell. One neuron."
That neuron is surrounded by tendrils of green, indicating connections with other brain cells — synapses. Vernon compares the cells of normal mice with mice that have been given antipsychotic drugs; in the treated mice, there are far more of those green connections, suggesting that antipsychotic drugs may help patients with schizophrenia by bolstering those connections in key brain circuits.
Professor Myriam Heiman, leader of the lab at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, says it's clear from this previously funded research that those connections are involved in schizophrenia symptoms.
And there's evidence that cannabis affects them as well — but maybe cannabis hurts those connections in much the way antipsychotic drugs help them.
"What if we see that the psychoactive components of marijuana are having the opposite effects of antipsychotic drugs?" she asks.
That could help explain findings by other researchers that link marijuana use by young people with schizophrenia. And if cannabis does hurt those connections, Heiman asks, might it be possible to counteract or prevent that?
"We were saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to study this?' " she says. "And then this gift comes along and really is enabling us to do everything we wanted to do."
That gift is about $1 million for work in Heiman's lab, out of Broderick's donation of $9 million.
In the McGovern Institute for Brain Research wing of the same MIT building, professor John Gabrieli will be using a similar share of the Broderick gift to explore the effects of cannabis in people with schizophrenia and autism.
Previous research by his collaborators suggests that elements of marijuana may boost cognitive abilities, such as working memory, in people with schizophrenia, he says.
So one question the team will be exploring is "whether there's a sweet spot" — the right mix of constituents like THC — "that's optimally helpful for patients with schizophrenia to gain maximal abilities in their cognition."
Heavy cannabis use is very widespread among people with schizophrenia, Gabrieli notes, and it's not clear to what extent cannabis is helpful or harmful to them.
"That's why we need the science," he says. "Because right now, it's happening without the science, and it's likely to happen all the more as marijuana becomes highly available legally in many states."
This segment aired on April 30, 2019.