From infancy to the age of 25, the human brain goes through a dramatic growth process that solidifies the essence of a person: likes, dislikes, temperament, senses of touch and smell are all determined within the first five years of a human life. Within the teenage years, a person’s judgement begins to form that is independent of their intellect and academic abilities, and will be fully-formed around the age of 25. Therefore, any substance or environmental factor that could inhibit this development is discouraged by doctors.
While cannabis seems to have little effect on adult brains over 25, doctors are concerned by cannabis use among teenagers, and want to warn them on the dangers of using cannabis before the brain is ready. “You should know what you’re getting into. You should know what will happen,” said Jennifer Golick from Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services in Marin County, CA. “Be an informed consumer — you make the choice.” Golick sees about 180 children as patients who have cannabis dependency and understands drug abstinence education has little effect on the teenage population.
In terms of recreational substances, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, tobacco, ecstasy and methamphetamine are far more lethal than cannabis. In fact, lethal overdoses of cannabis are non-existent due to how cannabis is processed in the human body and the amount needed to trigger an overdose. But doctors want teenage patients to know that a non-lethal substance can still be harmful.
According to Sion Kim Harris, a researcher at the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children’s Hospital, teenagers involved in heavy cannabis consumption often have decreased neurocognitive function and brain development. This is due to THC’s effect on neurons in the hippocampus, decreasing their activity in a part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. If the hippocampus has prolonged exposure to THC during the developmental phase, it could lead to undersized development and therefore decreased function. Since a human brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25 or so, teenage brains are more easily-influenced by internal and external stressors, and are more adept at learning and adapting to new influences. If neurons in the hippocampus are less active over time, the brain naturally disables these neurons, which affects memory formation.
“That is one of the biggest issues for teens — the ‘opportunity cost,” Harris said. “Learning is the number one job for teens, and if they are having problems with learning, that will impact their ability to grow into adulthood.”
Research has also shown how THC affects the growth of brain matter, and how electrical pathways in the brain can be weaker. Myelin, the substance responsible for insulating neurons and other nerve cells, does not form as well in the presence of chronic THC consumption. “So the implication is your brain is slower.” said Harris.
“There’s a problem with cognitive processing. It’s not as sharp or as strong. It’s harder to maintain focus.”
There is also a connection between how early the brain is exposed to harmful substances and the severity of developmental damage. According to one report,
“The brain does not complete development until approximately age 25, and data from the field of alcohol use reflect that substance use exposure during this period when the brain undergoes rapid transformation could have a more lasting impact on cognitive performance.”
Researchers at the academy admit that there’s no clear connection between cannabis and academic performance, due to the infinite number of variables that affect cognitive brain development, they do suggest “this interference in cognitive function during the adolescent and emerging adult years, which overlap with the critical period in which many youth and young adults’ primary responsibility is to be receiving their education, could very well interfere with these individuals’ ability to optimally perform in school and other educational settings.”
But in teenager’s whose family has a history of mental illness, marijuana use could lead to a higher likelihood of that illness presenting itself. “We are seeing these kids develop schizophrenia at a younger age than their parents or other family members developed it,” Harris said. “Marijuana use seems to be a precipitating factor.”
The consensus seems to be that cannabis is use is fine, but only after you’re finished growing. “I don’t care who uses, or how often, if you’re over age 30,” said Harris. “But we’re seeing these critical developmental issues in people up to their mid-20s.”
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) refers to injuries sustained by blows to the head. If those injuries to the cranium affect the brain and disturb the delicate distribution of neuronal pathways, all kinds of unpleasant things can happen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBIs contribute to 30 percent of all injury deaths. Survivors have a good chance of suffering disabilities for the rest of their lives. Rates of TBI deaths have been decreasing annually since 2001. Currently about 52,000 people die from TBIs every year (more than 150 percent more than die from car accidents). More than five million people live with injuries caused by TBIs (more than the number suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease).
Interventions in Traumatic Brain Injury Cases
Initial treatment stabilizes the individual to prevent further damage. Then treatment involves minimizing other injury and maintaining or improving blood flow to the brain to facilitate repair and healing. Sometimes surgery helps to unclog blood vessels and improve oxygen distribution to brain cells, as well as reducing swelling in the brain and pressure from the confines of the skull. In other words, there is usually not much that can be done actively. Doctors principally maintain the best conditions for natural healing. Dealing with unconsciousness, maintaining breathing, monitoring the bodily functions that are controlled by low-level brain functions, like breathing and heart-rate are about all that can be done.
- Dilantin (the anti-seizure drug usually used for epilepsy) is often administered.
- Body temperature is maintained at low to normal levels to reduce the need for oxygen.
- Narcotic sedation is often given in severe cases to cause a state of paralysis to keep the patient still and comfortable.
- Mannitol is given to “pull fluid” from the brain case, reduce blood pressure and lower the pressure on the brain.
Cannabis and the Brain
Controlled studies find cannabinoids may be used to treat traumatic brain injury. Cannabis has been found to be a “neuro-protective” agent.
In one controlled study published in 2014, patients with severe TBI, given THC (cannabinoid) treatment showed significantly higher survival rates compared to a control group not given THC. In the THC treatment group only 2 died (2.4 percent) compared to 42 (11.5 percent) of the control group.
Following a blow to the head, the body releases “harmful mediators” that lead to toxicity, oxidative stress and inflammation and can cause death independent of brain cell damage itself. Cannabis has been shown to offer protection to the neural system, reducing the amount of brain damage.
- In mice with brain injury, cannabinoid (CBD) administration caused a significant reduction in brain swelling compared to a control group (a 2010 study).
- In pigs with brain injury, CBD reduced brain inflammation and oxidative stress (a 2013 study).
- Newborn human babies who suffered brain injury received significant neuroprotective benefit from CBD administration (a 2013 study).
- One study found that patients who had detectable levels of THC in their bodies were less likely to die from traumatic brain injury than those who didn’t (a 2014 study).
Repeated studies have shown that THC provides a protective effect, reducing the kinds of harmful substances the body itself produces after a traumatic brain injury. In other words, cannabis works in concert with conventional handling of brain injured patients. Cannabis slows traumatic brain injury damage and further enables natural healing. Israeli researchers (who have taken the lead in exploring the benefits of THC derived substances) have shown that administering THC before or shortly after the injury can prevent long-term brain damage.
“Administering just a fraction of the amount of THC that would be found in a typical marijuana joint induces chemical processes necessary to protect critical brain cells while preserving long-term cognitive function.”
There is a lot of testimonial evidence (not well analyzed) that cannabis can help people who have experienced TBI on a long-term follow-up basis. So far, there are no large follow-up studies on the efficacy of cannabis as an ongoing treatment in TBI patients. It as an area well worth studying.
For decades the War on Drugs and its advocates pushed a false narrative about cannabis that was meant to scare the public by claiming the mighty green herb actually damages the human brain and lowers IQ. While the last decade or so has a seen a feat of poetic justice of epic proportions take place as medical marijuana sweeps the world curing everything from cancer to epilepsy and becoming a multi-billion dollar business (the fastest growing segment of the U.S. economy in fact), the stigma relating to its effect on the brain has been the hardest to shake and claims about its ill cognitive effects still abound.
So let’s settle this once and for all.
Not only has cannabis use actually been associated with enhanced creative function in everyone from Bob Marley to William Shakespeare (if the greatest literary genius in Western history was a toker how much can it really dumb you down?) but there are plenty of studies now that show that not only are all those IQ lowering studies completely bunk, but that marijuana actually does the opposite: it protects the brain, boosts many of its most important functions and can actually stimulate the growth of new brain cells. Sound too good to be true? Read on.
Cannabis is a Powerful Neuroprotector
Scientists have known since at least 1998 that marijuana has profound brain cell protecting properties when an important study published by the National Academy of Sciences tested THC, CBD and other cannabinoids in rats that had been poisoned by the neurotoxin glutamate. All of the cannabis compounds were found to prevent “oxidative damage” caused by the brain toxin and CBD itself was found to have higher antioxidant function than both vitamins C and A.
The authors of the study concluded that CBD “may be a potentially useful therapeutic agent for the treatment of oxidative neurological disorders.”
Since that landmark study, dozens of other investigations into the neuro-protective properties of cannabis have found an amazing array of nearly miraculous results that continue to unravel the more they are put under the microscope. Just last year for example, a study conducted at UC San Diego found that the cannabinoids in marijuana were able to block the age related plaque build-up of the neurotoxin beta amyloid (Aβ), which leads to cell death and all sorts of the brain impairments that we think are a natural product of getting older.
This means that cannabis is such a profound brain protector that it actually is keeping our noodle younger and healthier, the complete opposite of the Drug War era hyped-up claims.
Cannabis Boosts Memory and Cognitive Performance
With such deep brain protective properties associated with cannabis it should come to no surprise that the marvelous green bud is also able to enhance many of our most important cognitive functions. And that is exactly what science has been discovering in study after study that not only put more nails in the coffin of myth of marijuana’s detrimental mental effects a but open up a plethora of new possibilities for the use of cannabis as a powerful natural brain boosting agent.
An important Israeli study in 2013 for example, sent shockwaves through the medical community and the anti-drug movement when it discovered that marijuana actually can be used to improve both learning and memory function. The researchers exposed a group of rats to high levels of stress for two weeks to induce the kind of cognitive deficits that are commonly found in “stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders” like anxiety and depression, including difficulties with short-term memory recall and solving simple spatial tasks.
Incredibly, having already proven in a previous study that marijuana cannabinoids can prevent the onset of these cognitive problems, they found that they could also completely reverse them after they set in as well.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In a brand new first of its kind study that has anti-drug advocates still scratching their heads, researchers at a Harvard University affiliated hospital found that after three months of cannabis treatment, adult patients were actually able to complete a variety of word and color tests with more speed than before, showing that the herb had actually improved their “executive” cognitive functioning.
“After three months of medical marijuana treatment, patients actually performed better, in terms of their ability to perform certain cognitive tasks, specifically those mediated by the frontal cortex,” explained Stacey Gruber PHD, author of the study and head of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program. That is nothing short of amazing.
Cannabis Promotes Brain Cell Growth
In what is possibly the most fantastic of all the hundreds of studies that prove the diverse medicinal powers of cannabis, Chinese researchers found back in 2005 that THC was able to stimulate the production of new neural cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for important cognitive and emotional processing.
Many drugs, including alcohol, cocaine and opiates are known to suppress the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus, meaning that marijuana can possibly reverse the brain damaging effects of drug and alcohol addiction.
The researchers concluded:
“The present study suggests that cannabinoids are the only illicit drug that can promote adult hippocampal neurogenesis following chronic administration.”
But THC is not the only cannabinoid that promotes the growth of new brain cells. A 2013 study that was trying to figure out by what mechanism CBD was able to reverse depression and anxiety discovered that the powerful non-psychoactive cannabinoid was actually stimulating the growth of new cells in the hippocampus as well.
This means that the cannabinoids in cannabis can be used to speed up the emotional and cognitive healing that we as a species need right now by helping us repair and grow important brain structures that support advanced processing.
Your Brain on Pot
A natural plant that not only protects your brain from damage due to toxins and stress but can enhance its cognitive function and even help it to grow new cells is nothing short of a miracle medicine – not a substance that should be villainized. So let’s set the record straight and stop the propaganda about it being harmful to you.
Your brain on pot is a happy, healthy brain that may even be ahead of the pack when it comes to human conscious evolution.
Cannabis researchers have known for a long time that the endocannabinoid system regulates many of the processes involved with the aging process, and that cannabinoids can protect the brain and other organs from age related damage. But there has never been a study done showing outright that marijuana can specifically reverse the effects of aging on the brain after it has taken place.
Until now that is.
In a ground-breaking first of its kind study just published in the academic journal “Nature”, an international team of scientists prove conclusively that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, is able to not only enhance the brain activity of elderly mice but to improve the density of key brain areas, including the hippocampus. In a dramatic turning back of time, these mice then clearly demonstrate an improvement in problem solving and other cognitive functions that normally decline with age.
Remarkably, a single low dose of THC was found to have “lasting effects on learning and memory performance” in the mice tested, regardless of age. Even more miraculously, the THC extract changed the underlying gene expression of 12 month old mice to be identical to that of a 2 month old mouse, meaning that beyond neurological function and even physical structure this powerful natural compound was able to induce “epigenetic” changes in the brain that restore it to its former youthful glory.
For anyone not well versed in evolutionary theory, epigenetics is a fast growing field of discoveries that both challenges and completes Darwin’s theories of natural selection (where fixed genes and traits are passed down through heredity) by showing that gene expression, and therefore actual physical changes (everything from body type to behavior to disease), can be influenced by environmental factors and happen within a single lifetime. In other words, in the nature vs. nurture debate, epigenetics has come forward to show just how powerfully nurturing can override the genetic programming that nature has originally provided.
Yes, we evolve within our lifetime. And now we know that cannabis can advance that evolution.
“These results demonstrate that the cognitive improvements in THC-treated mature mice were associated with a change in gene profiles” the study states, after explaining that the marijuana compound actually upregulated gene transcripts that are known to not only improve cognitive function and protect against age related illnesses like Alzheimer’s Disease but even extend lifespan.
In a time when anti-aging medicine has become a multi-billion dollar industry, despite the risks involved with treatments like Human Growth Hormone and Stem Cell therapy, this new study is completely game-changing. Scientists have been trying to develop epigenetic treatments for age related cognitive impairments for some time but have not been able to come up with anything that does not have serious side effects. Now we know that cannabis can once again do what Big Pharma simply can only dream of.
A natural and abundant plant that has already been proven to have incredible medicinal power across a wide range of therapeutic applications and presents no toxic danger, cannabis is nothing short of a miracle medicine that is here to help us evolve to a healthier and happier future. Playing an important role in human development since the beginning of time, cannabis continues to be a co-evolutionary partner whose relationship to us just gets more and more beautiful as time goes by.