The two fields that I have a passion for are the neuroscience of reproduction and the biochemistry of lipid signaling. My group combines these fields to understand how lipid signaling drives changes in reproductive neurophysiology through a systems neuroscience approach. One lipid signaling system currently being investigated centers on endogenous cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the active compounds in the plant cannabis (pictured to the right).
Cannabinoid compounds activate receptors throughout the body and the nervous system and regulate a myriad of neurophysiological pathways. These receptors did not evolve to prepare for the likelihood that an organism would someday ingest compounds from a cannabis plant. They evolved in concert with endogenous signaling molecules that are collectively called endocannabinoids. The most studied of these are the lipid signaling molecules, anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). However, there is growing evidence that these two lipids are not alone in exerting cannabimimetic (cannabinoid-like) effects in the body. Many of these novel endogenous endocannabinoid analogs are produced in the female reproductive tract and throughout the nervous system.
What are they doing there?! Well… that’s what we are in the process of finding out. Of particular interest to my group is their involvement in the neurophysiology of pelvic pain. Lipid signaling molecules have a long history of being involved in pain and inflammation. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil) block the production of the lipid signaling molecules from the family called Prostaglandins. Prostaglandins, like endocannabinoids, are made with the fatty acid, arachidonic acid and so share structural similarity. We have multiple lines of research ongoing that will lead us to a greater understanding of the following: 1) the neurophysiological role of endogenous cannabinoids and related lipids in the regulation of uterine contractions, 2) the biochemical role of endogenous cannabinoids in regulating cell migration of endometrium within the reproductive tract and how this communication plays a role in the pelvic pain disorder, endometriosis, 3) how steroid hormones regulate the production and activity of these lipid signaling molecules, and 4) how the biochemistry and neurophysiology of this family of lipids acting on the reproductive tract and the brain ultimately shape behaviors.