Long-term cannabis users brains 'are different'

Behind the Headlines

Tuesday November 11 2014

Cannabis smokers were given MRI scans

THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis

"Cannabis use 'shrinks and rewires' the brain," reports The Daily Telegraph, with much of the media reporting similar "brain rewiring" headlines.

The headlines are based on a study that compared the brain structure and connections of cannabis users with those of non-users.

The researchers identified several differences between cannabis users and non-users in a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Brain differences of cannabis users

The evidence on differences in the brains of people who use cannabis and those who don't is not a new finding. In April 2014, research found differences on MRI scans in the nucleus accumbens and amydala of cannabis users. And back in December 2013, it was reported cannabis changes the structure of the brain's subcortex.

 

In these particular studies, it's impossible to say if differences seen in the brains of cannabis users were caused by cannabis, or if they were pre-existing differences that may have made them more susceptible to misusing cannabis. However, it is known from other research that cannabis has potentially harmful effects.

This is part of the reward network, and is enriched with cannabinoid 1 receptors. These bind THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.

Some of the differences seen by the researchers were associated with how long people had used cannabis or the age they started using the drug.

However, although brain differences were found, it is not clear they were caused by cannabis use. It is possible that brain differences mean it is more likely that certain people use cannabis.

While this single study doesn't prove how cannabis affects our brains, we do know from other research that cannabis has several other potentially harmful effects. Read the facts about cannabis.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Texas, The Mind Research Network and the University of New Mexico.

It was funded by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal PNAS. This article was open access, so is free to read online.

The media generally reported the results of this study along the lines of The Guardian's headline: "Smoking cannabis every day 'shrinks brain but increases its connectivity'." But these headlines are misleading.

This study did find differences between the brains of cannabis users and non-users, but because it was only a snapshot in time, we can't tell if the brain differences were caused by cannabis.

It is possible that brain differences mean it is more likely that certain people use cannabis. These could be pre-existing differences in the parts of the brain associated with feelings of reward, and people with this brain structure are more likely to try or persist in using cannabis.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional study that compared the brain structure and connections of people who used cannabis with the brain structure of non-users to see if there were any differences.

Although this type of study can identify differences in brain structure and connections between cannabis users and non-users, it cannot show that the differences were caused by cannabis use: people with different brain structures may be more likely to use cannabis, for example.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at the brains of 48 cannabis users, who were using cannabis at least four times a week over the previous six months, and 62 non-users.

The cannabis users varied in age, and the non-users were chosen because they were the same sex and age as the users.

The researchers also used the marijuana problem survey to assess the negative psychological (such as feeling bad about marijuana use), social (such as family problems), occupational (such as missing work), and legal consequences of marijuana use over the previous 90 days.

 

What were the basic results?

The researchers identified several differences between the brains of cannabis users and non-users.

These differences were in a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. This is part of the reward network of the brain, and is enriched with cannabinoid 1 receptors that bind THC (the "active" ingredient in cannabis).

The researchers found the orbitofrontal cortex was smaller in cannabis users, but there was more connectivity.

Some of the brain differences were correlated with behaviour related to cannabis. Some brain differences varied with duration of use, and some of the differences were associated with the age a person had started using cannabis.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that their findings "suggest that chronic marijuana use is associated with complex neuroadaptive processes, and that onset and duration of use have unique effects on these processes".

 

Conclusion

Cannabis is a Class B drug. It is illegal to have any to use yourself, give away or sell.

 

Possession of cannabis carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while supply could land you with a 14-year jail sentence.

This study has identified several differences between the brains of cannabis users and non-users.

These differences were located in the orbitofrontal cortex part of the brain.

This is part of the brain's reward network, and is enriched with cannabinoid 1 receptors, which bind the active ingredient in cannabis.

Some of the differences were associated with how long people had used cannabis, or the age they started using cannabis.

However, although brain differences were found, it is not clear that they were caused by cannabis use. It is possible that these brain differences mean it is more likely that certain people use cannabis.

While this single study doesn't prove how cannabis affects our brains, we do know from other research that cannabis has several other potentially harmful effects. Read the facts about cannabis.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter. Join the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Smoking cannabis every day ‘shrinks brain but increases its connectivity’. The Guardian, 10 November 2014

Cannabis use 'shrinks and rewires' the brain. The Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2014

Smoking cannabis every day 'warps your brain and shrinks grey matter', scientists warn. Daily Mail, 10 November 2014

Links to the science

Filbey FM, et al. Long-term effects of marijuana use on the brain. PNAS. Published 10 November 2014

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