ST. GEORGE – A new study released last week warns the highly-potent strains of marijuana available on the market today could cause brain damage or even lead to psychosis, continuing the debate on whether or not marijuana triggers long-term neurological and psychological changes in a person.
As heated debates on the issue of whether marijuana should be legalized or whether we should continue to criminalize the drug continue, policymakers argue on scientific facts that marijuana has as many drawbacks as it has benefits for your health.
No matter where you stand on the issue, a team of scientists from King’s College London and Sapienza University of Rome warn smoking high potency ‘skunk-like’ cannabis can damage a crucial part of the brain responsible for communication between the two brain hemispheres — whether a smoker experiences psychosis or not.
Researchers have known for some time that long-term cannabis use has been linked to psychotic symptoms and multiple studies show it’s been linked to schizophrenia — recent evidence suggests that alterations in brain function and structure may be responsible for this greater vulnerability. However, this new research, published Nov. 26 in “Psychological Medicine,” is the first to examine the effect of cannabis potency on brain structure.
‘Skunk-like’ products have higher levels of the psychoactive compound Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than “regular” pot. It has become much more prevalent in recent years, as people seek out more potent versions of the drug, making research on the impact of cannabis potency particularly important.
“We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not,” author Paola Dazzan said in a media statement. “This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”
The researchers used Diffusion Tensor Imaging, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging technique, to scan the brains of 56 people who had sought treatment for a first episode of psychosis, and 43 healthy participants.
The team examined the density in the brain’s corpus callosum, the vast network of white matter in the brain consisting of nerve cell projections that connect different regions of the brain and enable communication between them. Damage to the connections means less efficient communication between brain cells, which can be linked to cognitive problems.
The corpus callosum is particularly rich in cannabinoid receptors, the study said, on which the THC content of cannabis acts.
The study found that people with frequent use of high-potency cannabis had a greater likelihood of damage to their white matter than people who smoked less frequently or who smoked lower-potency version. Using high-potency cannabis was linked to white matter damage regardless of whether or not psychotic symptoms were reported.
“There is an urgent need to educate health professionals, the public and policymakers about the risks involved with cannabis use,” Dazzan said, and added:
As we have suggested previously, when assessing cannabis use it is extremely important to gather information on how often and what type of cannabis is being used. These details can help quantify the risk of mental health problems and increase awareness on the type of damage these substances can do to the brain.
- The Lancet: Proportion of patients in south London with first-episode psychosis attributable to use of high potency cannabis: a case-control study – published February 2015
- Psychological Medicine – published November 2015
- Study shows white matter damage caused by ‘skunk-like’ cannabis
- Is cannabis neurotoxic for the healthy brain? A meta-analytical review of structural brain alterations in non-psychotic users – published September 2013
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