Your Brain On Cannabis: Part Two

This a follow on post from last month’s Your Brain On Cannabis, which has become one of the most widely read posts on Inside the Brain.

The effects of marijuana on your brain

The drug acts in areas of the brain involved in memory and emotion by interacting with two receptors – the so-called CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors – to cause a profound effect on recent memory. Long term memories are not affected. One brain region called the hippocampus has receptors for endogenous “marijuana” (anandamide). Hippocampal damage is associated with failure to make new memories and if the CB1 and CB2 receptors are stimulated activity decreases in this brain region.  Interestingly, with repeated use, tolerance to loss of memory develops but this is often associated with a further increase in drug intake.

Learning and marijuana don’t mix

Marijuana also changes the way sensory information is processed in the brain and is associated with poor performance in school and increased delinquency. There is impairment in the ability to learn. Listening and repetition learning is also compromised. Heavy marijuana use is associated with deficits in mathematical skill and verbal expression. Taken together these effects can lead to catastrophic social and psychological consequences particularly for the young abuser – not to mention the lost employee productivity, public health care costs, accidents and crashes and loss of income – Americans spent $10.6 billion on marijuana purchases in 1999.

Marijuana is addictive

Marijuana addicts experience withdrawal and an animal model for dependence has been developed by scientists to understand how this happens. Withdrawal has been described after 21 days of heavy use and starts 10 hours after stopping and includes insomnia, nausea, anorexia, agitation, restlessness, irritability, depression and shaking (tremor). The symptoms peak within 48 hours and gradually wear off by the fifth day of abstinence.

The war on marijuana starts with spreading the word

During the 1970s in the US it was decided that a liberal approach be adopted to marijuana use and 11 states decriminalized marijuana, 30,000 head shops were allowed to spring up and “responsible-use” messages were promoted. The drinking age was lowered to 18 years and the sale of cigarettes and alcohol to teens was tolerated. By 1979 35% of adolescents, 65%of high school seniors and 70%of young adults had tried an illicit drug. These facts and the increase in drug-related crime prompted universal outrage and the laws were tightened up. As a result – from 1979 to 1992 marijuana use has dropped by 2/3 among adolescents, and young adults and daily marijuana use has dropped by 500%. However, it has taken over 20 years to undo the damage in the US.

In tackling the marijuana problem head-on  – the following common myths need to be debunked (i) marijuana is harmless, (ii) marijuana is not addictive (iii) youth experimentation is inevitable and (iv) the criminalization of marijuana use is what leads to crime, not the drug itself.

In the final part of this series on the effects of cannabis on your brain, we will take a look at the possible medicinal uses of marijuana.