At around noon Seattle time today an 800-pound robot named InSight will land on the surface of Mars. InSight is loaded with gear to study the geology of Mars, but it’s also a proxy for a much grander future mission: Sending humans to the red planet.
NASA hopes to send a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s (according to a 2015 report from the agency). InSight still needs to safely negotiate Mars’ notoriously difficult landing before NASA can pop the champagne, but it appears that humans are getting a lot better at figuring out how to get to our nearest planet. However, billion-dollar machines might be able to get us to Mars, but they can’t overcome the frailty of the human body.
Humans are not designed to live in space, so when we spend long times in alien places like Mars our bodies start to fall apart. One of the biggest problems, according to NASA’s own planning documents, is bone loss due to low gravity. Gravity on Mars is only 38 percent as strong as it is on Earth and getting to the planet would take four to six months in one direction. That means even a "quick" trip in Mars would involve dangerous amounts of time in low gravity. You know what can help with that?
Welcome to chapter one million of “Pot Can Help With Everything.” Scientists have established a clear connection between bone loss and the endocannabinoid system, the neurological network in our own bodies that pot uses to get us high. The two receptors that THC activates and get us high with—referred to by scientists as CB1 and CB2 receptors—have been linked to bone growth and bone loss in multiple studies on animals.
Interestingly, it appears that both activating and deactivating these receptors in both can help combat bone diseases. A 2005 study showed that mice with intentionally inactive CB1 receptors were protected from bone loss when scientists removed their ovaries, which causes bone loss by lowering estrogen levels. However doing the opposite and actually activating CB1 and CB2 receptors (which is what cannabis does) in aging mice “increase bone mass and protect against bone loss,” according to a 2010 review of studies. So, cannabinoids appear to have a complicated and powerful connection to bone loss. Both of these studies said cannabinoids and their receptors are clearly worth studying for bone therapy drugs. A separate 2010 review said that cannabinoid receptors should be looked at for future treatment of “complex multifaceted bone diseases such as osteoporosis.”
So pot and its compounds could possibly be a way to fight the bone loss that astronauts face when they're traveling through outer space. Oh and guess what? It would also help the millions of humans that suffer from the crippling effects of bone loss disorders.
I couldn’t find any active clinical trials on cannabinoid therapies for osteoporosis on the federal government’s registry, and NASA hasn’t officially announced that they are looking into cannabis as a way to get us to Mars. But maybe they are doing it behind closed doors. Or if I’m really the first person to connect these dots they should probably give me a free trip to Mars, in which case I will immediately raffle my ticket for charity. I am much more interested in using pot to make life better on my home planet.