Your Brain on Drugs
Marijuana and Mental Health
Marijuana has been the subject of research for decades, and many uses for medical marijuana on the body are well-known. It was used to treat gout, malaria, and other conditions in ancient China, and investigation in recent decades has demonstrated its usefulness to help slow the growth of some cancer cells, relieve crippling pain and inflammation from arthritis, lessen pain in those suffering from Crohn’s – a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD),
and even to treat Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks its organs and tissues, potentially affecting the kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, or brain and central nervous system.
Though the positive impact of medical marijuana on the body is documented, science is learning more every day about the benefits of cannabis on the brain and its potential to treat those with mental health issues such as schizophrenia.
This long-term mental health condition results in a host of psychological indicators. As symptoms often emerge during the teen years, schizophrenia is sometimes initially misinterpreted as typical teen angst or going through a ‘rebellious phase.’ The disease is devastating, with the affected person having changes in behaviour, like being unable to dress or groom properly. They may experience hallucinations – such as hearing voices that are not there – and delusions to the point where they believe they are being followed or newspaper articles are sending secret messages solely to them.
Schizophrenia requires psychiatric evaluation and a lifetime of treatment. It is most commonly managed with prescribed medications, which influence the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. There are second-generation antipsychotics like clozapine (sold under the brand name Clozaril) and risperidone (known as the brand Risperdal) – which have fewer side effects than earlier drugs, these still often result in weight gain, tiredness, and sexual problems. However, there is hope today for adults with schizophrenia and other mental health issues in the form of marijuana.
A new study, issued as The Role of Cannabis within an Emerging Perspective on Schizophrenia, from researchers at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychology and Department of Economics revealed the positive benefits of using marijuana to treat schizophrenia, either on its own or in conjunction with prescribed medications. For sufferers, an estimated one percent of the population, the report published in the journal Medicines shines a bright light on a painful topic, namely mental illness.
“Cannabis can be used as a treatment for schizophrenia within a broader etiological perspective that focuses on environmental, autoimmune, and neuroinflammatory causes of the disorder, offering a fresh start and newfound hope for those suffering from this debilitating and poorly understood disease,” suggested the report.
Schizophrenia is costly and devastating to those with it as well as their families and friends. Symptoms vary wildly, often preventing the individual from attending school or working. Using cannabis, according to the study, may “possibly overcome the effects of D2 [dopamine] blockade associated with antipsychotics.”
While there is no known cure for schizophrenia, cannabidiol (CBD) treatment shows promise as a safe, effective option, either as primary or adjunctive therapy, according to the authors of the paper, Jegason P. Diviant, Jacob M. Vigil, and Sarah S. Stith. “In a recent placebo-controlled trial among schizophrenics, CBD treatment was shown to affect positive psychotic symptoms over and above the effect of a patient’s antipsychotic treatment,” said the study.
Medical marijuana is showing promise in treating other mental health conditions besides schizophrenia. Cannabis is well-known for its calming effects, helping people relax, and it is showing signs of helping men and women with bipolar disorders, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.
When compared to the prescribed medication alprazolam, better known by the brand name Xanax, cannabis has far fewer long-term health implications. Xanax is one of the most-prescribed drugs in America. It acts on the brain and central nervous system to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Yet Xanax is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, cannot be combined with alcohol, and taking the drug has been linked to suicidal thoughts, episodes of mania in patients with depression, or dementia with long-term use.
Research shows that, compared to drugs like Xanax, marijuana also decreases anxiety, but without the side effects. Similarly, marijuana is demonstrating its effectiveness for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This year, the results of a study conducted by researchers at Washington State University (WSU) into the effects of marijuana on depression, was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The landmark study suggests high-CBD marijuana may provide relief from symptoms of depression. Unlike studies conducted in clinical settings such as a laboratory, this study concentrated on the effects of low-THC marijuana consumed in the home and tracked almost twelve thousand adults.
“Existing research on the effects of cannabis on depression, anxiety, and stress are very rare, and have almost exclusively been done with orally-administered THC pills in a laboratory,” said Carrie Cuttler in an interview with WSU Insider magazine. Cuttler is the paper’s lead author and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychology at WSU.
Data was collected through an unusual method: a smartphone app. Using the app, respondents anonymously self-reported information about their depression and anxiety levels before they used marijuana and after. Once compiled, data indicated that a single puff of high-CBD/low-THC cannabis helped decrease symptoms of depression with 89.3 percent of participants in the tracked sessions reporting a decrease in depression symptoms. Other encouraging results revealed stress reductions in 93.3 percent and anxiety reductions in 93.5 percent of sessions.
“Our study shows that CBD is also a very important ingredient in cannabis and may augment some of the positive effects of THC. A lot of consumers seem to be under the false assumption that more THC is always better,” Cuttler added.
While recent research works such as The Role of Cannabis within an Emerging Perspective on Schizophrenia and the WSU study on marijuana on depression in the Journal of Affective Disorders are encouraging, it is vital to remember that study subjects were adults, not teenagers or children. Many studies discuss the potential harm of cannabis use by people under the age of eighteen.
The teen brain undergoes a process called synaptic pruning, with unwanted neurons being ‘pruned back’ as the brain develops to increase the efficiency of neural circuits. Cannabis use has been found to interfere with this. Other considerations, such as the frequency of marijuana use, dosage amount, and duration, have also been linked to young people developing depression, anxiety, or even psychosis in some.
As nations such as Canada legalize marijuana, consumption will undoubtedly increase, as will the need for more research into the potential positive benefits of its use to treat mental health issues in adults.