Most people have heard of THC and know that it is the chemical responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects. It is a powerful substance that is capable of significantly impacting both body and mind.
A recently published article in the journal Scientific Reports has described the remarkable discovery of a previously unknown cannabinoid. Dubbed THCP, the molecule has been shown to be significantly more potent that its well-known counterpart THC, however, it’s still unclear how psychoactive it is in humans or how present it is in popular cannabis varieties.
Although humans have been utilizing the intoxicating properties of cannabis for thousands of years, it is only incredibly recently that scientists began to understand exactly how the plant confers its psychoactive affects. In the late 1980s scientists discovered a new type of brain receptor that seemed to respond directly to compounds in cannabis. A few years later a second similar receptor was discovered, and the two receptors were labeled CB1 and CB2.
These two kinds of receptors, found in significant volumes across the entire human body, are strongly activated by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), perhaps the most well-known psychoactive compound in cannabis. A number of naturally produced neurotransmitters, called endocannabinoids, also interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors.
New Cannabinoids Discovered
In the December 30th, 2019 edition of the open-access journal Scientific Reports, a team of Italian scientists formally introduced the new cannabinoids THCP and CDBP to the world. Using mass spectrometry technology, which allows researchers to precisely measure and analyze the chemical structure of minuscule bits of living matter, the researchers found two unique, organic molecules that mimicked the structure of THC and CBD almost perfectly, except for one critically important variation.
All cannabinoid molecules include attachments known as alkyl side chains, which are composed of a string of carbon atoms. It is these side chains that bind with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the brain, thereby allowing cannabinoid molecules to cause impactful changes in neural activity.
Regular THC and CBD molecules contain five carbon atoms in their alkyl side chains, and no naturally occurring cannabinoid had ever been found to contain more. Synthetic cannabinoids with longer chains have been created, but up to now, it wasn’t known if Cannabis sativa plants could produce organic compounds matching this particular structure.
Now this question has been answered in the affirmative. While examining samples from a strain of medicinal cannabis called FM2, which was obtained from the Military Chemical Institute in Florence, the Italian researchers found THC and CBD analogs with seven carbon atoms in their alkyl side chains. It was already known that longer side chains would bind more actively and firmly with CB1 and CB2 neurochemical docking stations in the brain’s endocannabinoid system, increasing the intensity of the brain’s reaction to the presence of such molecules.
Further in vitro testing confirmed the hypothesis that THCP and CBDP would function like enhanced versions of THC and CBD. The researchers were especially interested in finding out more about THCP since the medicinal qualities and mind-altering capacities of THC are already well understood. Their tests revealed that the binding affinity of THCP with CB1 receptors was an astonishing 33 times stronger than that of THC, meaning its effects in the brain could be exponentially more significant. Doctors and patients already laud THC for its medicinal potency and effectiveness, which bodes well for the future of THCP as a medicinal ingredient.
Is THCP Already Helping Patients?
Medicinal cannabis products are known for having an unpredictable impact. Results vary from person to person and even from use to use.
“There exists an astonishing variability of subject response to cannabis-based therapy even with equal THC doses,” the Italian researchers note in their Scientific Reports article. “It is, therefore, possible that the psychotropic effects are due to extremely active phytocannabinoids, such as THCP.”
“In our opinion,” the Italian scientists continue, “this compound should be included on the list of the main phytocannabinoids to be determined for a correct evaluation of the pharmacological effect of the cannabis extracts administered to patients. In fact, we believe that the discovery of an extremely potent THC-like phytocannabinoid may shed light on several pharmacological effects not ascribable solely to THC.”
Even if THCP is ultimately found to exist in only trace amounts in a few random strains, genetic selection and careful breeding could create new strains that contain THCP in more significant numbers. Extracts high in THCP could also be taken as a way to harvest it in a more concentrated form for medicines targeted at specific illnesses or disorders against which THC is known to be effective.
So far, approximately 150 cannabinoids have been discovered in different Cannabis sativa strains. Research like this most recent study leaves open the possibility that dozens more may yet be detected in the years to come, as research techniques sharpen further.
If there are many hidden cannabinoids awaiting discovery, it is possible, if not extremely likely, that some of the therapeutic or mind-altering effects prescribed to THC, CBD, and other already-identified cannabinoids may be related to the activity of these currently unknown compounds. Some of these substances may be as potent as THCP appears to be, although that is strictly a matter of speculation at this time.
The Future of THCP
One of the most common uses for THC-based medicinal cannabis is for treating chronic pain. Given the similarity of their chemical structures, it is conceivable that THCP might be even better at relieving pain than products that contain significant quantities of THC. If this is true, medicines manufactured to include high levels of THCP could eventually emerge as a superior alternative to opioids, which unlike cannabis-based medications are highly addictive and potentially deadly.
Anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 people will die of an opioid overdose in the United States in any given year. This underscores how serious the opioid epidemic is, and how vital it is to find other potent painkillers that can replace these dangerous substances.
The discovery of THCP is brand new, and it will take much more research before scientists are confident of its characteristics and capacities. In the meantime, the treasure hunt for other new cannabinoids continues. From a historical perspective, medicinal cannabis is still a newcomer on the American healthcare scene, and the Cannabis sativa plant continues to shelter many mysteries. Based on what is known so far, it’s not outrageous to suggest that cannabis may eventually revolutionize medical practice, once its secrets have been fully unlocked.
What Is THCP?
THCP is a phytocannabinoid, one of the hundreds of active compounds that cannabis plants produce in their resinous trichomes. Scientists have identified almost 150 of these chemicals to date, and THCP is the latest on the list.
The beneficial compounds in cannabis include cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. However, cannabinoids are especially renowned for their medicinal benefits.
There are many different cannabinoids with various properties. Some of the best-known examples include:
- Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
- Cannabichromene (CBC)
- Cannabigerol (CBG)
- Cannabinol (CBN)
Let’s take a look at how cannabis plants synthesize these cannabinoids and what is special about THCP.
How Cannabis Plants Produce THCP
Although there are many different phytocannabinoids, they all have a somewhat similar structure. This is because they all start life as the same molecule, cannabigerolic acid (CBGA).
Many people refer to CBGA as ‘the mother cannabinoid.’ It forms through a complex reaction between olivetolic acid and geranyl pyrophosphate. It then undergoes further enzymatic reactions to become the acidic forms of the phytocannabinoids: THCA, CBDA, CBCA, and so on.
Cannabinoids only exist in their acidic forms in raw cannabis. When they come into contact with heat, a process called decarboxylation occurs. This reaction changes THCA into THC, CBDA into CBD, and CBCA into CBC, etc.
Decarboxylation is a vital process for anyone wishing to create cannabis edibles. Without it, the cannabinoids remain in acidic form and have little effect on the body.
THCPA and CBDPA form in a similar way to these other phytocannabinoids. It is only after exposure to heat that they become THCP and CBDP.
However, unlike the other cannabinoids, THCP and CBDP exist in meager quantities in cannabis plants. For this reason, they have remained hidden until now.
How Is THCP Different from THC?
The molecular structures of THC and THCP are almost identical. The thing that distinguishes them is a part of their make-up called a ‘side alkyl chain.’
An alkyl chain is a string of carbon and hydrogen atoms attached to a molecule. In THC, the alkyl chain consists of five carbon atoms. However, in THCP, it consists of seven.
It is this difference in the length of the alkyl chain that changes the effects of the chemical. It appears that having more carbon atoms in its side chain makes THCP far more potent than THC.
Carbon Chains and Cannabinoids: Size Matters
Although all cannabinoids have a fairly similar chemical structure, the length of the alkyl chains can vary. THCA, CBDA, and CBCA all have five carbon atoms in their alkyl chains.
Some cannabinoids have chains of just three carbon atoms, including THCV and CBDV. These chemicals are known as ‘varinoids.’ Others have chains with a single carbon atom, including THC-C1 and CBD-C1. They are known as ‘orchinoids.’
It appears that phytocannabinoids with longer alkyl chains bind with cannabinoid receptors in the body more readily. For example, some synthetic cannabinoids with alkyl chains longer than five have far more potent effects than THC.
The highest activity occurs with compounds with alkyl chains of eight carbon atoms. If the chain is longer than this, its action begins to decrease.
The reason for this is the way that phytocannabinoids interact with the receptors in the body. These receptors include the CB1 and CB2 receptors that are a crucial element of the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Longer alkyl chains allow cannabinoids to bind with these receptors more effectively, thus increasing their effects. For this reason, THCP’s seven-long carbon chain makes it more potent than THC, which has a chain of just five.
THCP Benefits and Risks
As part of their study, Citti and colleagues tested the newly discovered THCP on mice. They found that when they administered low doses of 2.5mg/kg, the mice displayed reduced activity levels.
At higher doses of 5mg/kg and 10mg/kg, the chemical’s sedative effects increased. The mice displayed catalepsy, a trance-like state in which the body becomes rigid and unable to move. However, at this dosage, THCP also appeared to possess potent painkilling properties.
The team suggests that THCP may be responsible for the pharmacological effects of some marijuana strains. However, it appears that the benefits of THCP are very much dose-dependent. Although the team did not test THCP on humans, it seems likely that the risk of side effects would be high.
One factor that deters people from using high-THC strains for medical conditions is the risk of adverse reactions. Common examples include dry mouth, sedation, anxiety, paranoia, and dizziness. A stronger substance, such as THCP, could potentially amplify any of these adverse side effects. Therefore, its use would require careful dosing and monitoring to provide genuine benefits.
How Much THCP Is in Cannabis?
As we have already mentioned, THCP and CBDP are far less abundant than THC and CBD. For example, in the Italian FM2 strain, typical levels of the four cannabinoids are as follows:
- THC: 39mg/g
- THCP: 29mcg/g
- CBD: 56mg/g
- CBDP: 243mcg/g
Note that the measurements for THC and CBD are in milligrams, while those for THCP and CBDP are in micrograms.
Each milligram is equal to 1000 micrograms, so the concentrations of these newly discovered cannabinoids are extremely low. No wonder they have escaped the attention of scientists for so long!
At present, we know very little about the THCP content of other cannabis strains. However, this information should become available in the future as research into the cannabinoid continues.
THCP and CBDP are a pair of phytocannabinoids which have remained a mystery until now. Initial research suggests that they could be far more potent than their counterparts, THC and CBD. Therefore, this exciting discovery could significantly alter the way we use cannabis in the future.
Overall, there is still a lot we don’t know about THCP and its effects on the body. As more research is done, we will know more about this new compound and how it can help medical cannabis users. If you have questions about medical cannabis or need a medical marijuana card, contact us today!
However, although these chemicals hold great medical potential, they may also pose an increased risk of side effects. More research is necessary to determine their exact impacts on human health, so watch this space. We will provide more information on THCP and CBDP as it becomes available.