The Effects of Cannabis on Brain Cells
Cannabis has been around for millions of years, and it’s one of man’s oldest crops. And yet there are so many basic problems that need to be answered. Where did it come from? How and why did it evolve? Why does it make all these suites of compounds? We don’t yet know how many species there are. Tinctures and extracts have been discovered inside burial mounds dating as far back as 3000 B.C…
Then came “Reefer Madness” The Killer Weed. And for almost 100 years the plant went into hiding and medical research largely ceased…
In the 1970’s, governments around the world made it even harder to study cannabis, classifying it as a Schedule 8 drug, a dangerous substance with no valid medical purpose and a high potential for abuse, listed in the same category as heroin. Anyone found to be expanding knowledge about or indulging in cannabis use; were by definition, criminals.
Recently, regulatory bodies want to reclassify medicinal cannabis, (rescheduling the CBD to a Schedule 3 substance) so it’s more accessible to Australians. A Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) safety review recommends making low dose medical cannabidiol (CBD oil) available in chemists. Under the proposed new changes up to 60mg of CBD oil would be accessible a day without requiring a prescription.
The number of prescriptions being issued in Australia for medicinal cannabis has surged by 300% in the past 12 months.
What also needs to be considered and determined is the adolescent brain! At what age can over-the-counter CBD be purchased? Different states have different age restrictions on obtaining a drivers permit; the age of consent for sexual interactions; leaving school; drinking alcohol; and soon - CBD purchases. States even differ on their definition of what constitutes adolescent age. We know that smoking *marijuana containing THC; a developing brain in a genetically prone adolescent can cause neurological damage.
What is the difference between Cannabis and Marijuana?
Generally, there is no difference between cannabis and marijuana and the two terms are often used to describe the same thing.
Cannabis describes cannabis products in general.
Marijuana specifically refers to cannabis products that are made from dried flowers, leaves, stems and seeds of the cannabis plant which contain THC.
There has never been a death reported from a marijuana overdose
Today, as more and more people are turning to medicinal marijuana to treat ailments, the science of cannabis is experiencing a rebirth. We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant. More and more countries are today decriminalising cannabis, and in recent years numerous countries have relaxed possession laws.
In the 21st century rush to accept cannabis into the mainstream, to tax and regulate it, to legitimise and commodify it, important questions arise. What’s going on inside this plant? How does cannabis really affect our bodies and our brains? What might the chemicals in it tell us about how our neurological systems function? Could those chemicals lead us to beneficial new pharmaceuticals?
Substantial evidence from animal research and a growing number of studies in humans indicate that cannabis exposure during development can cause long-term or possibly permanent adverse changes in the brain. Imaging studies of cannabis’s impact on brain structure in humans have shown conflicting results. Some studies suggest regular cannabis use in adolescence is associated with altered connectivity and reduced volume of specific brain regions involved in a broad range of executive functions such as memory, learning, and impulse control compared to people who do not use. Other studies have not found significant structure differences between the brains of people who do and do not use the drug.
Several studies, including two large longitudinal studies, suggest that cannabis use can cause functional impairment in cognitive abilities but that degree and/or duration of the impairment depends on the age when a person began using and how much and how long he/she used.
Among nearly 4,000 young adults in an American “Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study” tracked over a 25-year period until mid-adulthood, cumulative lifetime exposure to cannabis was associated with lower scores on a test of verbal memory but did not affect other cognitive abilities such as processing speed or executive function. The effect was sizeable and significant even after eliminating those involved with current use and after adjustment for confounding factors such as demographic factors, other drug and alcohol use, and other psychiatric conditions such as depression.
Some studies have also linked cannabis use to declines in IQ, especially when the user starts in adolescence and leads to persistent cannabis use disorder into adulthood. However, not all of the studies on the link between cannabis and IQ have reached the same conclusion, and it is difficult to prove that cannabis causes a decline in IQ when there are multiple factors that can influence the results of such studies, such as genetics, family environment, age of first use, frequency of use, having a cannabis use disorder, duration of use, and duration of the study itself.
The ability to draw definitive conclusions about cannabis’s long-term impact on the human brain from past studies is often limited by the fact that study participants use multiple substances, and there is often limited data about the participants’ health or mental functioning prior to the study. Over the next decade, the US National Institute of Health is funding the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCE) study that will track a large sample of young Americans from late childhood (before first use of drugs) to early adulthood. The study will use neuroimaging and other advanced tools to clarify precisely how and to what extent marijuana and other substances, alone and in combination, affect adolescent brain development.
More research will be needed to answer definitively whether cannabis use causes long-term IQ losses and whether factors that weren’t measured in previous research, such as the increasing amounts of THC in cannabis and the emergence of new cannabis products, are relevant.
What we do know is that memory impairment from cannabis use occurs because THC alters how the hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory formation, processes information.
As people age, they lose neurons in the hippocampus, which decreases their ability to learn new information. Chronic THC exposure may hasten age-related loss of hippocampal neurons.
Cannabis – Myths vs Facts
Scientific research shows that there are risks, especially for teens. Cannabis affects a person’s judgement, and can impair his/her ability to drive. For those who are regular users, it can lead to poor academic performance, or even addiction.
So how does cannabis have such a big impact on a person’s ability to function?
Scientists have been asking themselves that question for years. And after decades of research they not only figured out how cannabis works, but they have also discovered an important communications system in the brain and the body, called the endocannabinoid system. Understanding the science of cannabis began in the mid-20th century with the identification of THC being cannabis’s main active ingredient. By the 1980s, scientists identified sites in the brain and body where cannabis acts and called them cannabinoid (CB) receptors.
The endocannabinoid system is found in many areas of the brain, which explains why it affects so many different body functions. Cannabinoids exert their influence by regulating how cells communicate – how they send, receive, or process messages. Cannabinoids act like a type of “dimmer switch”, slowing down communication between cells.
The main active ingredient in cannabis, THC, (also a cannabinoid), interferes with the normal functioning of the endocannabinoid system. Brain Cells (neurons) communicate with each other by sending chemical messages. The chemicals (neurotransmitters) cross a gap between neighbouring neurons before attaching to their specific receptors. But THC overwhelms the endocannabinoid system. It prevents the natural chemicals from doing their job properly and throws the whole system off balance.
Frequent cannabis use in a developing adolescent could have implications for academic functioning, as well as social and occupational functioning extending into later life. Disruptions in brain development related to neurotoxic effects of regular cannabis use could significantly alter neurodevelopmental trajectories by not only changing neurochemical communication and genetic expression of neural development, but causing a toxic effect of brain tissue. Such a cannabis-related effect on white matter and gray matter structures could have widespread implications for healthy brain development from childhood to young adulthood on subtle cognitive functioning and success in daily functioning. Studies exploring the neurocognitive consequences and structural functional neuroimaging changes related to cannabis use in adolescents is ongoing.
Still, for many, cannabis has become a tonic to dull pain; aid sleep; stimulate appetite; buffer life’s ups and downs by peeling back layers of stress. It is also proven to be useful as an analgesic, an antiemetic, a bronchodilator, and an anti-inflammatory. It’s even been found to help cure a bad case of the hiccups. Compounds in the plant, some scientists contend, may help the body regulate vital functions such as protecting the brain against trauma, boosting the immune system, and aiding in “memory extinction” after catastrophic events.