Dr. Ziva Cooper

The Magazine: Dr. Ziva Cooper

Dr. Ziva Cooper is the Research Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative and an Associate Professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. She has spent the past twenty years studying the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids and psychoactive substances, first at Columbia University and now at UCLA in Los Angeles, California.

Why do you think people are so excited about CBD?

People have ailments, and they're being drawn to what are not traditional conventional therapeutics.... Especially cannabidiol (CBD), given the fact that it’s non-intoxicating, and for the most part, it’s not going to impact the way you think or remember or the way you perform at work — and it’s not going to make you intoxicated. There are a lot of hypotheses related to its therapeutic effects, so it makes sense that people are very excited about it. And the skeptic also knows that there’s a lot of marketing behind this.

I drive down Sunset Blvd. every day to UCLA and I see billboards targeting all types of demographics — we’re being bombarded with the commercialization of cannabinoids.

Whenever I’m at a party, an older woman comes up to me and shares her experience using cannabidiol, and when they ask me about my thoughts, I say, “As long as it’s working for you.”

We’re really trying to do the rigorous science behind what we’re hearing from patients, and what we’re hearing about people’s subjective experiences, and also what we’ve seen in animal studies, where a lot of these hypotheses were derived.

Why did you decide to start studying cannabinoids?

I started studying psychoactive substances about twenty years ago using animal models to understand the therapeutic and adverse effects of substances, including opioids and cocaine. About twelve years ago, I decided I wanted to study the impact of psychoactive substances in people. So I trained to be able to administer substances to people under controlled placebo conditions. It’s very unique to be able to give scheduled substances such as opioids, cannabinoids, cocaine to people; you need to cross several regulatory hurdles in order to do it. You also have to be super cautious just because these substances have all types of effects.

About three and a half months ago, I moved from New York to Los Angeles to do cannabis research at UCLA, which was an ideal opportunity. Coming from New York City, where medical cannabis just became legal a year ago, the area hasn’t really blossomed in the way that Los Angeles has, where medical cannabis was legalized in 1996 and adult use was legalized a year and a half ago. In Los Angeles, there’s definitely a cultural revolution happening where people are turning to cannabis to help their medical ailments, and it’s definitely the place to do this type of research.

Can you speak to the importance of bioavailability?

Bioavailability refers to the degree and the rate at which a substance is absorbed into the body. With respect to the bioavailability of cannabidiol, if someone is smoking or vaping, the bioavailability will be very different compared to if they were taking it orally or taking it under the tongue or rubbing it on their skin. We know a little about the bioavailability of inhalation versus oral, and we know that when people use it orally, very little is absorbed, and if you want to boost the bioavailability, take your cannabinoids with high fat foods. With topicals, people are reporting success, but we don’t yet have data demonstrating that it permeates the skin, but perhaps it’s having an effect on the skin itself.

We’re just at the very beginning of trying to figure out what cannabidiol does. Everybody talks about cannabidiol, and we have to figure out what it does by itself, and then see what happens when you add other terpenes or minor cannabinoids, and then we can start looking at the Entourage Effect. We want to figure out what cannabinoids do on their own and then figure out what they do together.

What are you currently studying?

One area of interest is whether women and men respond differently to cannabinoids. If so, how do they respond differently and why? For a decade, pharmacal therapeutics were only studied in men, and we knew very little about the effects of drugs in women. We’re now realizing that was a big mistake, and this is very important in respect to cannabis and cannabinoids, because we are seeing a significant increase in women who are seeking them out, so it’s a very important issue to address. It’s highlighted in animal studies as well male and female animals respond very differently to cannabinoids. I want to figure out how and why men and women respond differently.

What’s one thing that science has shown to be true about cannabinoids?

I don’t think many people know there are two cannabinoid receptors in our bodies and brain: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptor is similar to the dopamine receptor and opioid receptor, and it is the most abundant decoupled protein receptor in the brain. It’s more prominent than dopamine and opioid receptors. So that’s a testament to how its activation responds to different modulations and processes. It demonstrates how cannabinoids have such wide ranging impacts on behavior and physiology, how pervasive that receptor is, and how many behaviors and physiological functions it can modulate.

What’s impressive to me is that in animal studies, they demonstrated that there’s this synergy between opioids and cannabinoids. The first double-blind human study that looked at opioids and cannabinoids was able to replicate this effect in humans. So that’s exciting to me because it’s the translation of an animal study to a human study.

Why did you decide to devote so much of your career to studying cannabinoids?

In the last ten years I’ve focused on cannabinoids because I’ve always been interested in how these substances can profoundly affect psychology and biology in a way that can be therapeutically advantageous. They can better people’s lives. So it’s about figuring out strategies to optimize the therapeutic effects and minimize the adverse effects.

We are entering the golden age of cannabinoids right now. There is a lot of interest and pharmacological pull.

This is the time to study cannabinoids — It’s a public health interest at this point.
Editor's notes: interview conducted on April 28, 2019 and edited for length and clarity.

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