03 Oct Research Shows Casual Pot Smoking Does Change the Brain
The rapid change in attitude toward marijuana use in this country has left many feeling uneasy. While marijuana has been approved for medical use in as many as 20 states and for recreational use in two, there is still a bit of uncertainty about what level of use is safe. A study provides evidence that really no amount of marijuana use is without significant implications.
Many people operate under the assumption that light marijuana use is okay, especially if the user doesn’t seem to have any problems at school or on the job. Supporters say that since there are no cases of deadly marijuana overdose and light users can maintain regular employment, where’s the harm? The new study challenges this method of evaluating recreational use. Researchers say that ill-effects to the brain come with even minimal use. In fact, the study is one of the first to examine the effects of marijuana in people who smoke just one to two times per week.
The study, a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and Northwestern University, followed 20 marijuana users and 20 non-users for three months. All of the participants were 18-25 years old. Participants were asked to report how much they smoked and how often they smoked. Brain images revealed the changes connected to smoking, with the researchers looking specifically at the density, shape and size of the amygdale and nucleus accumbens, which are areas of the brain responsible for governing emotions.
The study showed that participants who smoked just one time per week experienced definite brain changes, and the more a person smoked the greater the brain abnormalities. In all marijuana smokers, the nucleus accumbens was larger than normal.
Since the amygdale and nucleus accumbens control reward, pleasure and learning changes to these areas are noteworthy. With marijuana use, or with the use of any drug, the brain is stimulated to release a flood of dopamine, the brain chemical that creates feelings of pleasure. The problem is that the pleasure is so intense that things like sex, food and friendship which normally make a person feel good become unsatisfying.
The U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggests that roughly 19 million Americans use marijuana. The current wave of support for increased marijuana legitimacy means that soon even more may be smoking. But under what misperceptions? The study certainly points toward the perhaps unrecognized dangers of light marijuana use. Americans may think that a couple of joints per week are no big deal, but would they think that if they could see pictures of enlarged brain regions?
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