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Undoing The Negative Impact Of Marijuana On The Teenage Brain

They told us that smoking marijuana was doing irreparable harm to our brains. It the equivalent of putting an egg in a hot frying pan. “This is your brain on drugs.” Yes, that’s the one.

If you grew up in the 1980s it was hard to avoid. Millions of taxpayer dollars were spent by Partnership for a Drug-Free America creating a professional propaganda machine to drive home the message. The War on Drugs would protect us. They had to arrest millions of Americans practicing what should have been their protected civil liberty to consume. It was for our protection. More importantly, it was for the kids. Afterall, you don’t want them to have permanent brain damage.

For years we have heard about the possible connection between adolescent cannabis use, schizophrenia and other psychoses. Researchers initially believed there could be a causality relationship, that cannabis use increased the user’s risk of developing certain mental health conditions. As time has gone by and more studies have been conducted, others have wondered if patients were simply self-medicating in a response to symptoms of psychosis that already existed.

Cannabis does impact the endocannabinoid system, which helps regulate sleep, appetite, and plays a major role in neurotransmission or how the brain communicates. This is the same system that doctors believe plays a major role in what is happening in the brains of those experiencing psychosis. 

Animal based research found that “there is evidence suggesting that chronic exposure to the primary psychoactive phytochemical in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), increases the long-term risk of psychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia.” Others have found that this risk increases in adolescents who have a specific variant of one gene.

Science may have struck another damaging blow to the propaganda machine. It seems that harm done to the brains of adolescents who used cannabis may be reversible. A Canadian team has been taking a deeper look at schizophrenia by focusing on the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers in the brain.

In previous work, the team observed that animals that consumed THC over long periods of time had changes to their brain’s prefrontal cortex, increasing dopamine production. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps facilitate reward/feedback, emotion and physical movement. This increased their interest and they kept digging.

More recently they investigated another neurotransmitter called GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that plays a moderating effect in the brain’s chemical signaling. They discovered that rats exposed long term to THC had less GABA, causing their dopamine levels to spike and creating a “hyper” state more likely to lead to symptoms of psychosis.

The reason that is a big deal is that GABA levels can be balanced with medicines currently available. With the right dosing, the hyperactive brains could be brought back into a normal range, effectively “fixing” the problem.

“What is important about this study is that not only have we identified a specific mechanism in the prefrontal cortex for some of the mental health risks associated with adolescent marijuana use, but we have also identified a mechanism to reverse those risks.” — Prof. Steven Laviolette

Like much good research, this leads to a better understanding but creates additional questions. The same team is planning to next study how this connection between cannabis, dopamine and GABA effective treatment options for depression, addiction, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Considering how many people collectively suffer from those conditions, they should have no difficulty securing funding for years to come.

Here’s to more rigorous investigative science and less eggs in frying pans seeking simply to scare us into compliance. We have had enough of all that.

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