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This Is Your Brain On Terpenes

We understand very little about the compounds that give cannabis its aroma and flavor. Scientists are hoping to harness and change that.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For decades, terpenes have been a key ingredient in the food, fragrance, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical industries. Now the cannabis industry is also seeing their benefits.

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Terpenes, the largest class of phytonutrients in green foods and grains, are compounds that contribute to the plant’s aroma and flavor. In cannabis, they modulate the impact of cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, helping to determine how the product will impact the receivers’ physiology. 

As the demand for cannabis-based medicine increases exponentially, the scientific community is engaging in further scientific research to better understand how terpenes—when combined with THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids—create specific physiological outcomes. 

Related: How Terpenes Could Revolutionize The Cannabis Industry As We Know It

Terpenes under the microscope

Earlier this year, researchers at UCLA received a $3.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether terpenes can reduce the amount of opioid medication a person needs to reduce pain. Fortunately, the trend of greater scientific research into cannabis medicine shows no signs of slowing down. 

Last week, True Terpenes, a leading terpene company, announced the launch of a Scientific Advisory Board to further study the benefits of how medical cannabis can be enhanced when combined with terpenes, also called the entourage effect.

The Scientific Advisory Board will provide True Terpenes with external scientific and medical insights, as well as feedback on product and intellectual property development. This is part of a long-standing goal of True Terpenes to address the gaps in the science surrounding the entourage effect and create products to optimize these discoveries.

Two scientific luminaries with impressive careers in cannabis research and small molecule development, Dr. Ethan Russo and Dr. Randall Murphy, have joined the board. 

Dr. Russo is a board-certified neurologist, and a pioneer in cannabis and psychopharmacology research, who popularized the theory of the entourage effect in his 2011 paper, Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. Dr. Russo was also a Senior Medical Advisor for GW Pharmaceuticals’ research on cannabis therapies including Sativex, a cannabinoid treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms and severe neuropathic-related pain, and Epidiolex, the first FDA approved botanically-derived cannabis medication. 

Dr. Murphy is a former tenured faculty member at New York University who has worked on clinical trials for pharma companies and launched several successful pharma startups. He designed laboratories and the widely used standards and practices in place at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Center for Analytical Chemistry, and the Staff Research Fellow Laboratory of Biophysical Chemistry. His work with the newly formed Scientific Advisory Board will be primarily directed at leading a similar expansion of laboratory facilities and advising on product development and clinical work at True Terpenes.

Related: The Next Big Thing in Cannabis? Terpenes

Some hurdles to overcome

Dr. Russo says that past terpene research has been limited. “The problem, scientifically, is that most research on terpenes is based on aromatherapy and essential oils. We need more formal high-level, scientific studies that tell us what these substances do in the brain,” he explains.

Another challenge is that much of the cannabis breeding has been done quite selectively over the years, resulting in a vast majority of cannabis chemovars in North America that are high in THC and high in myrcene. Myrcene is a terpene with pain-relieving qualities. When myrcene is combined with THC it has a sedating effect, colloquially known as ‘couchlock.’ "That’s not ideal for everyone, in particular for medical users who may need to work or study during the day,” Dr. Russo says.

Most of the CBD chemovars out there are also high in myrcene, according to Dr. Russo. "This has created a common misconception, which is that CBD is sedating. It isn’t. Pure CBD is quite alerting at low and moderate doses. By virtue of the myrcene content, this misconception has arisen. The current situation is not reflective of all that cannabis can be and should be.”

One way to create cannabis products with a wider variety of functional and therapeutic effects is by altering their terpene profiles. This is often accomplished by adding terpenes, a core part of True Terpenes’ business, which offers thousands of terpene combinations ranging from botanically derived isolated compounds to proprietary formulas based on flavor and function. 

“By bringing in Dr. Russo and Dr. Murphy, we want to legitimize all the anecdotal evidence about terpenes with hard science and data,” said Chris Campagna, CEO of True Terpenes. “Hopefully that will enable the medical community to make better-informed decisions about cannabis treatment options and help more people.”

What they're hoping to discover

Dr. Russo is specifically focused on formulating proprietary terpenes/terpenoid and cannabinoid blends to enhance quality of life in target areas such as sleep, relaxation, energetics, and focus. 

“Cannabis is a unique opportunity for individualized medicine," he says. "To achieve that individualization will require scientific investigation around how terpene and cannabinoid combinations affect brain chemistry."

“The confusion and lack of knowledge around terpenes as flavors, versus terpenes as functional ingredients, amongst regulators and consumers is a challenge we come up against regularly,” said Campagna. “That was a big factor in creating this Scientific Advisory Board. We’ve been huge proponents of consumer education and consumer safety since starting our business. Back then, very few people even knew what terpenes were. We want to bring terpenes to the mainstream.” 

Once there is more scientific evidence for the powerful effects of combining terpenes with cannabinoids, more consumers and healthcare professionals will discover the health benefits that cannabis can offer. This research will fuel the growth of the industry, not just from a product development standpoint, but also by cultivating greater consumer demand.