The fact that marijuana can be addictive is not a secret, and it has not been for many years now. Psychologists, behavioral experts, and scientists all know of its addictive nature. However, pot is not addictive in the same way that heroin and opioid prescriptions are. It is more like having a coffee or sugar dependency. Now, new research illustrates just how marijuana can affect our brains.
A team of neuroscientists recently conducted a study to determine how “long-term exposure” to marijuana and its active compounds could influence the way brain cells to respond toward addiction. The group found that the neurons under research changed over time. The study occurred in a strange location: Brigham Young University, long affiliated with the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-Day Saints.
Jeff Edwards, a neuroscientist at Brigham Young University, said that, “In general, we downplay marijuana a bit; but really, it is less of a big deal for adults than for adolescents whose brains are not fully developed.” Scientists already know that marijuana is able to activate the specific reward pathway in the brain responsible for addictions developing.
This particular study provides additional information into how brain cells might modulate the addiction pathway. However, the study’s findings do not apply directly to human health. As a preclinical trial, the team conducted their experiments on brain cells from adolescent mice. They did not use live mice or human subjects, and clinical trials on human brain cells are still necessary.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 6.3 percent of adults in the United States will receive a weed addiction diagnosis at some time or other during their lives. Technically, the proper term for pot addiction is either “marijuana use disorder” or “cannabis use disorder,” and it is a measurable clinical condition.
Diagnostic criteria for marijuana use disorder mimic the criteria for other addictions, including drugs and chocolate. Doctors base their diagnosis on physical symptoms, such as withdrawal and animalistic cravings, as well as the effect that cannabis is having on the person’s professional and personal life. This particular diagnosis is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 2013, an important guidebook used by psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide.
When someone consumes narcotics, the group of brain cells responsible for the production of dopamine goes into overdrive. Gradually, activity patterns in these cell groups contribute to dependency and addiction issues. “We have known marijuana can lead to an addiction in some people, and we know that it happens because marijuana stimulates dopamine production and makes you feel good.”
That was the statement of Alan Budney, a substance abuse specialist, and psychiatrist at the Geisel School of Medicine in Dartmouth, who also said, “In terms of demonstrating that it can be addictive, we are beyond that already.” The exact effect on these dopamine-manufacturing cells varies according to the type of drug was taken and the receptors and cells that it can bind to.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active compound in marijuana responsible for its psychoactive effects, binds to brain cell receptors called CB-1. Both mice and human brains contain CB-1 receptors, and according to Edwards, both species have them in the same areas of the brain. For his research, Edwards used marijuana compounds issued by the federal government.
Furthermore, besides the obvious concerns about removing drugs from the laboratory, a notable one at any university studying regulated substances, nothing especially notable occurred from conducting the research on the Brigham Young University campus. As Edwards concluded, “The institution here knew I was doing the research. They did not mind.”