Have you ever wondered what cannabis does to your brain? Unfortunately, legal barriers to research have prevented scientists from thoroughly studying the health impacts of cannabis. High-quality clinical research regarding long-term cannabis consumption is scarce, and what is available has produced conflicting results. However, what little is known about the herb’s effect on the mind is intriguing. Here’s what science has to say about the long-term effects of smoking weed on your brain.
Scientists have yet to come to a firm conclusion about the long-term effects of cannabis smoking on the brain. A lack of substantive and conclusive clinical trials makes it difficult to make any concrete claims regarding long-term cannabis consumption and negative health outcomes.
Here are a few reoccurring themes in the research on long-term cannabis smoking.
This one is more like a mid-term effect of smoking cannabis. Over time, cells in your brain and body build up a tolerance to THC and other cannabinoids.
This tolerance occurs when special cell sites, called cannabinoid receptors, downregulate. This means that they desensitize to THC or the effects of other cannabinoids.
This is a similar effect to what happens with caffeine and insulin. In type 2 diabetes, for example, consistently elevated blood sugar increases the body’s demand for insulin, a hormone that shuttles excess sugars into fat cells for storage.
After facing an onslaught of insulin, cells become less sensitive to the hormone. This means that more sugar is left to circulate in the blood, leading to high blood sugar.
With cannabis, a version of this happens with cannabinoid receptors and THC. When cells are faced with too much THC, they downregulate their cannabinoid receptors. This means that people can become less sensitive to cannabis over time, and may need to consume more of the herb to get the same effect.
Tolerance is not exactly a long-term effect. Once you cut back or abstain from cannabis, evidence suggests that the body begins to rapidly regain receptor sensitivity. After abstaining from THC, some people may find themselves a little groggy, moody, or may have trouble sleeping while these receptors begin to express themselves again.
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Currently, there is some debate on whether or not cannabis causes long-term brain changes in adolescent consumers. In 2016, a pair of studies of identical twins found that teen cannabis consumption is NOT linked to long-term IQ decline. Twin research reigns supreme in the world of population studies.
Twin studies allow researchers to better distinguish between environmental triggers and genetic factors. These studies found that those who consumed cannabis scored lower in IQ tests overall, but their non-consuming twins also saw the same drop over time.
This lead the study authors to conclude that something in the environment was contributing to the long-term cognitive decline.
However, other studies suggest a correlation. A 2014 study found that chronic teen cannabis consumption is correlated with changes in the white matter of the brain, which may contribute to troubles with attention and impulsivity.
These results were not seen in participants who began after the age of 16. his study fails to prove that cannabis causes these changes. Rather, it simply suggests a connection between the two phenomena.
Though, it’s important to not that this study fails to prove that cannabis causes these changes. Rather, it simply suggests a connection between the two phenomena.
There is some evidence that those who are predisposed to certain types of mental health conditions may be better off staying away from cannabis. Though cannabis itself has not been found to be the sole cause schizophrenia, several studies suggest that chronic cannabis consumption is associated with earlier onset schizophrenia.
Interestingly, there is also some evidence that adult consumers (not teenage onset consumers) with psychotic disorders may experience improvements in cognition when compared to healthy controls.
Some scientists also suggest that those with psychotic conditions like schizophrenia may also be genetically more susceptible to chronic cannabis consumption.