A fiery colon could cause anxiety


Haley Vecchiarelli

Principal Investigator

Dr. Matthew Hill


University of Calgary

Grant Type

Graduate grant in 2017-2019


Anxiety, colotis

Dr. Haley Vecchiarelli

Postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Marie-Ève Tremblay at the Division of Medical Sciences, University of Victoria.

The impact

If you have an autoimmune disease like colitis (where the body’s immune system attacks the colon), you could be at higher risk for anxiety disorders. While having one disorder may be bad, having two is even worse! Understanding the correlation between anxiety and colitis could open up new treatment options for both disorders. Since the endocannabinoid system is involved in both disorders, cannabis could be a potential treatment. Before that, we need to understand more about how cannabis signalling in the brain works in colitis.

The study

The brain is susceptible to inflammation, and one of the natural reactions to high levels of inflammation is stress and anxiety. Normally, stress helps us deal with inflammation, but it can actually make things worse in autoimmune conditions. This study used rats with colitis and found that the inflammation caused decreases in endocannabinoids in many important brain areas for emotion. In turn, this caused stress and anxiety, but increasing the endocannabinoid levels back to normal prevented the mental health consequences of colitis.

What's next?

This study looked at endocannabinoids, which are different than the cannabinoids found in marijuana. An important next step in this research is to consider those cannabinoids, which could offer insight on if cannabis could be a treatment option for colitis. Since cannabis has lots of anti-inflammatory properties, it might actually help colitis in multiple ways. But before cannabis could be okayed as a treatment option, there is still a lot of work to be done in the lab to ensure we understand the risks, benefits, and other implications of cannabis in autoimmune conditions.

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Vecchiarelli HA, Morena M, Keenan CM, Chiang V, Tan K, Qiao M, Leitl K, Santori A, Pittman QJ, Sharkey KA, Hill MN. Comorbid anxiety-like behavior in a rat model of colitis is mediated by an upregulation of corticolimbic fatty acid amide hydrolase. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2021 Apr;46(5):992-1003. doi: 10.1038/s41386-020-00939-7. Epub 2021 Jan 15. PMID: 33452437; PMCID: PMC8115350.