Do teens experience the effects of cannabis longer than adults? One neuroscientist says that developing brains may “hang on” to cannabis for a while.
Do teenagers get higher from cannabis than adults? The brain is the last organ in the body to develop. By some estimates, the brain isn’t fully mature until twenty-five years of age. Different substances impact the brain differently at distinct stages of development. Unfortunately, just how cannabis impacts the teenage brain is still under investigation. However, one neuroscientist lays out some key differences between the teenage and the adult brain on cannabis.
Research on the long-term effects of cannabis use in teens has been unable to determine a causal correlation between the plant and negative health outcomes, though several are suspected.
Of these, future cannabis dependence, impulsivity, and cognitive difficulties are the most debated. Thus far, no studies have provided a conclusive look into whether or not cannabis has negative long-term health outcomes in the brain or body.
Yet, research conducted by Dr. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist, author of The Teenage Brain, and former president of the American Epilepsy Society, sheds light onto the fact that teens may experience cannabis differently than humans do.
One primary distinction? The active compounds in cannabis hang out in the teenage brain longer than they do in the adult brain. The teenage brain can also more easily become saturated with cannabis compounds, which increase the overall potency and the length of the cannabis experience. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Jensen explains,
Not only does the teen brain have more places for the cannabis to land, if you will, it actually stays there longer. It locks on longer than in the adult brain.
[…] For instance, if they were to get high over a weekend, the effects may be still there on Thursday and Friday later that week. An adult wouldn’t have that same long-term effect.
While the psychoactive high from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary active component in cannabis, only lasts a few hours, Jensen suggests that teens may have more trouble remembering things they learned in school, and remaining alert, focused, and in tip-top shape for tests and homework for up to a few days after consumption, particularly heavy consumption.
These effects may not be particularly noticeable, but more akin to some extra fatigue and difficulty concentrating. For many, this experience can be described as a cannabis hangover.
As Jensen explains, cannabis has a sedative effect on the teenage brain. When you’re trying to learn, Jensen’s work suggests that this tranquilizing effect can dampen the neural excitability needed to learn and lay down memories.
Excitability refers to the speed at which brain cells can fire and communicate with each other. The more neurons (brain cells) fire together, the more they build connections and the more you can learn.
Jensen suggests that these sedative qualities aren’t the best thing for a healthy, developing brain that needs excitability to learn. However, this quieting effect is one reason why cannabis may work so well in pediatric epilepsy. In seizure disorders, the brain is over-excited and needs to be calmed with sedative medications.
Cannabis isn’t the only thing that affects teenagers differently than adults. Alcohol, especially binge drinking, can do a number on the teenage brain. Jensen explains,
There are studies that show that binge drinking – which is probably the worst scenario actually – binge drinking can actually kill brain cells in the adolescent brain where it does not to the same extent in the adult brain.
So for the same amount of alcohol, you actually get – you can actually have brain damage, permanent brain damage, in an adolescent for the same blood alcohol level that may not – may cause, you know, bad sedation in the adult but not actual brain damage.
Yep, that’s right, alcohol is toxic enough to kill teenage brain cells. Both cannabis and alcohol can have sedative effects, the seeming teenage tolerance to the effects of alcohol may actually make them worse off.
Cannabis may make it more difficult to remember what you’ve just learned and may make teens particularly forgetful for a few days after consumption.
Binge drinking, however, can cause brain damage and may interfere with learning and memory to the point where teens black out and can no longer remember what they were doing at the time of being drunk.