OXFORD, Miss. – Scientists are discovering more about the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States: marijuana.
Marilyn A. Huestis, senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is on the front lines of these discoveries. She is best known for her research on cannabinoids, compounds in Cannabis sativa that activate cannabinoid receptors in the body.
“We’ve done a lot of research on acute and chronic exposure,” said Huestis, chair of chemistry and drug metabolism at NIDA’s Intramural Research Program.
Huestis will share what she and her colleagues have learned about chronic marijuana use when she delivers the University of Mississippi’s 2012 Coy W. Waller Distinguished Lecture. Hosted by the School of Pharmacy and National Center for Natural Products Research, the free public lecture is set for noon Sept. 28 in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
“Dr. Huestis is an accomplished scientist who has led the way toward major breakthroughs in Cannabis research,” said David D. Allen, the pharmacy school’s dean. “I am very excited to hear more about her findings on chronic Cannabis use. She brings a unique perspective from NIDA, and we are honored that she is sharing that perspective with our local community.”
In her lecture, “Chronic Daily Cannabis Smoking: Neuroadaptation and Residual Cannabinoid Excretion and Psychomotor Impairment,” Huestis will share new, and sometimes startling, findings about chronic marijuana users.“There is a lot that hasn’t been known about chronic exposure,” she said. “I would say we’ve spent the last 10 to 15 years trying to come up with ways in which we can study this. It’s a very common problem – one out of nine people who use Cannabis will become a chronic daily user.”
Huestis and the team at NIDA studied chronic exposure by bringing chronic users to their secure site and observing their performance. Their most recent study, which involved measuring psychomotor impairment as it relates to skills critical for driving, revealed that chronic users could be impaired up to three weeks after their last use.
“Quite interestingly, we showed that chronic users were impaired at baseline when compared to occasional Cannabis users, not just healthy normals, but people who only use less than once a day,” Huestis said. “We showed that this went towards normal during sustained abstinence, but by three weeks, chronic users were still impaired, compared to occasional users.”
Huestis has worked extensively with the NIDA Marijuana Project at Ole Miss. The project began in 1968, when NIDA gave the university and the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences its first contract.
“I have worked with the NIDA Marijuana Project many, many times,” Huestis said. “It is the source of all the Cannabis products that we use in our research. It is essential to have this resource available to researchers so that we can continue to make progress in understanding the endogenous cannabinoid system, as well as marijuana abuse and dependence.”
Having worked at NIDA for almost 20 years, Huestis has conducted research on stimulants and in utero drug exposure in addition to her work with cannabinoids. She has published 278 peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters and presented more than 300 abstracts at national and international meetings. She is the recipient of numerous awards and was recently featured by “Clinical Chemistry” as an “Inspiring Mind.”
Huestis said she is excited about lecturing at the university.
“I think it’s a fantastic honor to be selected as the Waller lecturer,” she said. “I’m looking forward to coming to Oxford and meeting not only with other faculty, but with the post docs and grad students. I do a lot of mentoring here, so I think it’s a great opportunity to come to a place that is very important in that particular area.”
Huestis’ lecture is an especially fitting tribute to Waller, said Larry A. Walker, director of the natural products center.
“It is a distinct honor for us to host Dr. Huestis as the 2012 Coy W. Waller lecturer,” Walker said. “We have been privileged to follow her work for a number of years, and we are thrilled that she is willing to come and share with the Ole Miss community her very engaging and enlightening perspectives on chronic marijuana use.”
Traditionally, the Waller Lecture hosts outstanding leaders in the biomedical sciences, he said, but this year’s lecture is of special significance.
“Dr. Waller had a distinguished career in the pharmaceutical industry before he came to the university,” Walker said. “Once he arrived here, he devoted much of his later career to Cannabis research.”
The Coy W. Waller Distinguished Lecture series was established in 2004 to recognize the former Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences director’s contributions to pharmaceutics and to the pharmacy school. Each year, a department within the school hosts the lecture, and lecturers are selected for their contributions to the host department’s discipline.
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