The medicinal cannabis industry is gathering pace across the world as it continues to be legalized by a growing number of countries. However, a leftfield challenger to its pain-relieving throne has emerged after a Swiss study suggested that liverwort may provide a more effective alternative.

A group of scientists at the ETH technology institute of the University of Bern and Zurich’s decided to study the moss-like plant’s medicinal properties. Some liverworts possess a compound called perrotetinene, which resembles the active ingredient in cannabis, THC. The results of the study suggest that perrotetinene, shortened to PET, in the Radula perrottetii liverwort easily binds to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and can dull the sensation of pain.

It also has greater anti-inflammatory properties than THC, according to the researchers, while PET is less psychoactive, so it may be preferable among medical communities.

The specific liverworts containing PET only grow in Japan, Costa Rica, and New Zealand. The scientists synthesized PET and THC and ran trials on mice. The tests showed that PET easily enters the brain and specifically activates cannabinoid receptors.

“It’s amazing that only two plant species, which divide 300 million years in the history of development, produce psychoactive cannabinoids,” said researcher Jürg Gertsch, referring to liverworts and cannabis in a university press release.

The healing properties of liverworts were first noted by plant chemist Yoshinori Asakawa in 1994, and the plant has been sold online as a legal high. The Swiss researchers believe it could seriously rival cannabis if cultivated, and the title of the press release translates to “a moss that could beat hemp in medicine”.

The study goes into great detail about sagittal hemispheres, enzyme inhibition assays and the nonspecific binding of the radioligand, which can make fascinating reading for members of the scientific community. But in summary, the scientists essentially claim it can match or better the job cannabis does in offering pain relief, while potentially coming with fewer negative side effects, such as memory loss and loss of coordination. The scientists said further research is now needed into liverworts and it will be interesting to see if it gains traction as a genuine alternative to cannabis.