Many people might think that there is no way a mind-bending, psychoactive plant can be good for your brain. While the research is mixed in regards to smoking cannabis for brain health, laboratory studies suggest that compounds in the herb may prove to be the brain healing drugs of the future. But, is cannabis really good for your brain? Here’s how the plant may encourage healing and fight aging.
Is cannabis good for your brain?
Though it is a bummer to say, there is no firm answer on whether or not cannabis is good for your brain. However, there have been several major scientific breakthroughs in the last decade that have had extremely positive results.
One such breakthrough happened in Ohio when researchers discovered that cannabinoids successfully reduced brain inflammation and memory in rodent models of Alzheimer’s disease.
In an interview with Leaf Science, Dr. Gary Wenk theorizes that cannabis is good for brain health, as long as you’re the right age. He explains:
I think all we can say safely so far is using low doses of marijuana for prolonged periods of time at some point in your life, possibly when you’re middle-aged to late middle-aged, is probably going to slow the onset or development of dementia, to the point where you’ll most likely die of old age before you get Alzheimer’s.
Wenk’s hypothesis may seem a little bold at the present moment, but there is some fascinating preclinical research that provides evidence for his claims. Cannabis may be one of the most influential brain-health tools of the decade.
Here are three ways that cannabis may be good for your brain:
1. Stress management
Many cannabinoids, the active compounds in cannabis, are neuroprotective antioxidants. This means that they help the body fend off damage caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable compounds that come in the form of oxygen, environmental pollutants, and UV rays from the sun.
When these free radicals interact with cells or DNA in the body, they steal energy away and cause small amounts of damage. Antioxidants are compounds that neutralize free radicals, preventing toxins from causing damage to cells and DNA.
As neuroprotective antioxidants, cannabinoids are hypothesized to protect brain cells from damage caused by oxidative stress. One review of preclinical research, for example, states that cannabinoids even guard against neurotoxic waste products that contribute to neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
Amyloid plaque is a toxic protein buildup that prevents brain cells from properly communicating with one another. Over time, this plaque causes the heartbreaking degeneration seen with the disease.
The neuroprotective properties of cannabis make it hot prospect in aging medicine. Some experts define aging as the accumulation of damage in the body. Free radicals and other forms oxidative stress are some of the primary causes of that damage.
As a powerful antioxidant, compounds in cannabis will perhaps one day be used as effective anti-aging therapies.
Neutralizing damage is not all the herb can do, however. Preclinical research shows that cannabis compounds promote neurogenesis in laboratory models. Neurogenesis is the process of growing new neurons.
In a 2005 study, researchers found that a synthetic cannabinoid promoted neurogenesis in adult rats. This neurogenesis was correlated to increased anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects.
This neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that controls memory, emotion, and the autonomic nervous system. Interestingly, this part of the brain is also the primary neuron-making factory.
Stress and aging are both two factors that slow down neurogenesis. Finding compounds or technologies that promote healthy activity in this region is competitive pursuit, and cannabis is an excellent contender for future therapies.
3. Trauma prevention
Some pharmaceutical startups are currently researching ways to make cannabis-based drugs that can prevent damage from concussion.
Kannalife Sciences also has exclusive rights for the commercialization of a US patent entitled “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.” The patent explores the potential of cannabinoid treatments in head trauma, neurological disorders, stroke, and much more.
The company’s CEO Dean Petkanas tells Fox News,
You have a repository of chemicals in the plant. But, more prominently we’ve found in some preclinical research that cannabidiol (CBD) acts as a neuroprotectant.
So, in the parlance of pharmaceutical science, we could be using that as a prophylaxis against repetitive concussive injury.
Some preclinical research in the area of stroke provides some evidence for the healing powers of the herb. A review published in 2014 reviewed the available animal literature on cannabis for stroke.
The study found that while cannabis did not decrease rates of death from stroke, compounds in the plant did reduce the amount of brain impacted by the overall event.
Of course, human research is sorely needed to put the brain-saving power of cannabis to the test. Though, another 2014 study published in The American Surgeon found that brain trauma victims that tested positive for THC before an injury had lower mortality rates than those without.
Is cannabis bad for your brain?
The research on cannabis and brain health is mixed and largely unsatisfying. Thus far, the heart of the debate centers on chronic adolescent and teen cannabis consumption.
In general, research is very suspicious of the potential long-term effects of protracted consumption in young, developing brains.
Though debated, cannabis is suspected to have more of a toxicity in the teen brain than in the adult brain. As explained by neuroscientist Dr. Francis Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, cannabis may have a different effect in teenage brains than in those of adults. She tells NPR,
What’s interesting is that not only does the teen brain have more space for the cannabis to actually land, if you will, it actually stays there longer. It locks on longer than in the adult brain.
Of particular concern are teens who use the herb heavily prior to the age of 16. A 2014 study published in Psychopharmacology expresses concern that consumption of those under the age of 16 is associated with brain changes that may lead to more impulsive behavior and inattentiveness.
The same changes were not found in those who started cannabis after the age of 16. However, recent studies have found no links between adolescent cannabis consumption and decreased IQ or functioning.
One study examined 2,235 British teens, 24% of which had consumed cannabis prior to the age of 15. There was no difference in the IQs of non-consumers and those who had consumed the herb less than 50 times.
Tobacco use, however, was positively associated with lower IQ.
Cannabis can also cause some short and long term alterations to memory. In the short term, learning and retaining new information is difficult after consuming cannabis. In the long term, one 2016 study found that heavy cannabis consumers may have some trouble with verbal memory.
On average cannabis consumers can recall one less word than non-consumers on verbal memory tests. The study authors estimate that heavy consumers will lose the ability to remember one word for every five years of enjoying the herb.
The evidence about how cannabis affects the brain is highly controversial. While the herb certainly has an abundance of potential, adult consumers certainly seem to benefit more from the plant than a developing teen.
This is the primary reason why the legal age for cannabis purchase is 21 in the United States and 18 for those in the Netherlands.
For more details on the effects of cannabis on the brain, check out the article here.