Did you know that the human brain contains receptors designed to interact with the cannabinoids found in cannabis? These cannabinoid receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a complex network of cell receptors and molecules that helps to regulate a wide range of physiological processes in the body, including mood, appetite, and pain perception.
But what happens when we introduce external cannabinoids, like those found in the cannabis plant, into this system? Is cannabis good for your brain? Is it bad for your brain? We have answers.
The Basics Of The Endocannabinoid System
To understand how marijuana use affects the human brain, we first need to understand a little bit more about the ECS. As mentioned earlier, this system comprises a network of cell receptors and molecules that work together to help regulate various physiological processes.
The two main types of receptors in the ECS are CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system. In contrast, CB2 receptors are found mainly in the immune system and other peripheral tissues.
Now, here's where it gets interesting. When we introduce cannabinoids like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the ringleader of psychoactive fun) and CBD (cannabidiol, the chill cousin) into our system, they interact with these receptors and trigger all sorts of shenanigans. And boy, does it lead to a wide range of effects, from mood swings to the munchies.
The Effects Of THC On The Brain
The human brain is a complex organ, a busy playground populated by billions of neurons, scores of neurotransmitters, and countless receptors. This makes the partnership between the chemicals in cannabis and the biology and function of the brain a deep sea of possibilities – one we’ve only recently started to reverse-engineer. One of the most well-known effects of marijuana use on the human brain is the psychoactive high produced by THC. When THC is introduced into the body, it binds to CB1 receptors, leading to various effects, including altered perception, mood changes, and impaired coordination and memory.
But what exactly is happening in the brain when we get high on THC? Quite a lot, as it happens. The brain is responsible for regulating everything in the human body, including physiological responses such as temperature and breathing, but emotions, thoughts, and memories are affected by cannabis use, too. Cannabis can affect everyday functions, but it’s also been shown to impact certain medical conditions positively. For this reason, medical dispensaries offering cannabis for therapeutic use are popping up in more countries and rising in popularity.
Some Key Areas Affected By Cannabis
If you've ever used cannabis, you probably know about the munchies—when you get really hungry after smoking or eating it. There are cells in the hypothalamus part of our brains that control our appetite, and the ECS is involved in how we eat. Having a big appetite isn't always good because it can lead to overeating. But some people have trouble eating enough because of different conditions or cancer treatments.
Researchers are studying whether THC, a component of cannabis, can help increase appetite in people with cancer and other conditions that affect eating.
Mood & Anxiety
The ECS regulates our emotions, mood, and stress because it's connected to the part of the brain that controls these things. Scientists are now studying how CBD affects anxiety in humans. They've already tested it on people with social anxiety and looked at how it affects blood flow in the brain areas related to anxiety.
About 23% of people in the UK deal with persistent pain. People experience pain for many reasons, like arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer, multiple sclerosis, or stomach ulcers. The ECS plays a significant role in how we feel pain, and researchers are studying how cannabis can help with different types of pain.
Cannabis use has been a subject of interest concerning its effects on impulsivity, the tendency to act on immediate urges or desires without considering potential consequences. While research on this topic is still evolving, several studies have shed light on the impact of the psychoactive compound in cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, on impulsive behaviour.
As we get older, our chances of developing neurological diseases go up. Even if we don't have any specific conditions, ageing can make our thinking slower and make it harder to do multiple things at once. Research has shown that the ECS is essential for brain ageing, especially in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Scientists are now studying how cannabis interacts with ageing to see if it has any positive or adverse effects.
Epileptic seizures happen when there's sudden electrical activity in the brain. CBD has been getting much attention due to anecdotal success in treating seizures. Studies are underway to see how CBD (specifically a cannabis medicine called Epidiolex) affects children with rare forms of epilepsy like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
Some scientists are exploring the possibility of using THC to treat Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's affects memory and thinking as proteins build up around brain cells. Eventually, the disease causes severe damage to the brain. Researchers have started studying whether THC can help reduce the buildup of these proteins.
Researchers are also studying how cannabinoids can help with different symptoms of Parkinson's disease, like problems with movement. They're interested in cannabinoids because the ECS is found in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which controls movement.
This is not an exhaustive list, either. Countless conditions are being treated by medical cannabis use as more evidence emerges supporting the drug’s positive effects on specific aspects of human health and wellbeing.
While there’s plenty of good news for moderate cannabis users, studies still preach caution. Prolonged or heavy cannabis use may still pose risks to brain activity. A 2021 paper published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the effects of THC on brain activity in healthy volunteers. The researchers found that THC reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for decision-making and other cognitive functions.
Another study published in 2014 looked at the long-term effects of cannabis use on brain structure and found that regular cannabis use was associated with reduced grey matter volume in brain regions, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are involved in emotion processing and memory formation, respectively.
The Potential Therapeutic Benefits Of CBD
Now, let's take a breather from the psychoactive circus and shout out to CBD, the chill cousin of THC. Unlike THC, CBD doesn't give you that ‘high’ sensation, but it's got its own bag of tricks. While THC is the cannabinoid most commonly associated with the psychoactive effects of cannabis, CBD is another essential compound that has been the subject of much research in recent years.
Unlike THC, CBD does not produce a high. Still, it has been shown to have potential therapeutic benefits for various conditions. One of the most well-known potential benefits of CBD is its anti-inflammatory properties. There’s evidence of this in a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation which found that CBD reduced inflammation and oxidative stress in animal models of multiple sclerosis. This condition is characterized by inflammation in the brain and spinal cord.
Another potential therapeutic benefit of CBD is its anti-anxiety effects. Research results published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that CBD reduced anxiety in patients with social anxiety disorder and that these effects were associated with changes in activity in brain regions involved in emotion processing.
The Potential Risks Of Cannabis Use
As much as we love to bask in the glorious benefits of cannabis, we can't ignore the potential risks that come with it. While growing evidence suggests that cannabis and its compounds may have potential therapeutic merits in low or short-term use, it is essential to note that there are also adverse effects associated with cannabis use, particularly to mental health regarding heavy or chronic use.
One potential risk is the development of Cannabis Use Disorder, a condition characterized by compulsive cannabis use, difficulty controlling use, and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. A paper published in JAMA Psychiatry found that approximately 9% of marijuana users develop cannabis use disorder, and the risk is higher among those who start using cannabis at a younger age. That’s a relatively low number, but the symptoms give pause for thought.
Furthermore, heavy cannabis use has been associated with cognitive impairments. A study from 2002 published in JAMA Internal Medicine followed a large sample of cannabis users over a 25-year period (that’s commitment!) and found that heavy cannabis use was associated with a decline in cognitive function, particularly in areas such as memory, attention, and executive function.
It’s also worth noting that cannabis use can affect cognitive development. Teenagers and young people are at increased risk of developmental damage if they use cannabis. Adolescence is a critical period of brain development. Exposing the adolescent brain to cannabis during this time can disrupt normal neurodevelopmental processes. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that regular cannabis use during adolescence is associated with altered brain structure and function and long-lasting cognitive deficits.
The Need For Further Research
While we have made significant progress in understanding the effects of cannabis on the human brain, there is still much we don't know. Further studies are needed to understand better the long-term impacts of cannabis use, particularly in heavy or chronic users. Additionally, more research is required to explore the potential therapeutic benefits of different cannabinoids and their mechanisms of action in the brain.
As our understanding of the endocannabinoid system and the effects of cannabis continues to evolve, we must conduct further research to fully comprehend the potential benefits and risks associated with cannabis use. This will help guide individuals, healthcare professionals, and policymakers in making informed decisions about cannabis use and its impact on the human brain.
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