New research from Brigman Young University suggests that prolonged cannabis use may alter brain chemistry and lead to addiction. The study investigated the effects of THC saturation on GABA cells that are critical to the brains reward circuit, that until now have been understudied. The results could be troubling for cannabis enthusiasts, but they’re not exactly definitive.
This was a study on mice, which doesn’t mean it’s useless, but mice and people are different. Researchers looked at an area of the brain called ventral tegmental area. Inside the VTA gamma-aminobutyric acid regulates how much dopamine and serotonin flood the brain. The scientists found mice injected with multiple THC shots over a week had problems with their GABA compared to mice who only had one THC shot.
This suggests that prolonged cannabis use alters the way the brain keeps serotonin and dopamine levels in check. If problems with GABA cells are repeatable and also occur in humans, it could be an indication of how and why people suffer from what has been coined “cannabis use disorder”. Cannabis use disorder is defined as continued use despite adverse outcomes or mental distress.
It’s important to understand that prolonged use of almost any substance can alter brain chemistry over time. Something like coffee can cause changes in the brain, as can sugar. Almost any pleasurable activity triggers a release of serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. This includes sex, masturbation and even non-physical bonding. These changes aren’t necessarily harmless.
But who gets to decide the definition of ‘cannabis use disorder’?
It’s certainly possible to have an unhealthy relationship with weed, but almost 84 percent of cases of cannabis use disorder began with referrals from law enforcement, not a doctor.
Keep in mind, this was not some suspiciously pharmaceutical funded study. The authors declared that they have no competing financial interests.
Most people who report any kind of dependency on weed have smoked daily for ten years, and have tried and failed to quit. And, as more and more research is being done on cannabis, we’re learning more and more that weed withdrawal is a real chemical process in the brain. If the results from this most recent study in mice are also true in humans, it deepens our understanding of how it may be irresponsible to promote cannabis as harmless. That being said, the intensity of dependence is not comparable to that of other substances.
This research is basically in line with that old adage “everything in moderation”. For heavy cannabis enthusiasts, this might be finally a reason to take a tolerance break, which isn’t all that bad of an idea. After all, tolerance breaks are scientifically proven to give you a better high.