The mainstream media launched into a reefer mad frenzy this week after researchers from Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago published the results of a neuroimaging study assessing the brains of a small cohort of regular marijuana smokers and non-users. The brain scans identified various differences between the two groups in three aspects of brain morphometry: gray matter density, volume, and shape. These differences triggered dozens of high-profile media outlets to lose their collective minds. Here’s a sampling:
Yet despite the sensationalist headlines, the study itself was hardly newsworthy. Decades of research pertaining to the potential residual adverse effects of cannabis on brain cognition have failed to support the notion that marijuana poses any sort of permanent brain deficits. And as I write today on Alternet.org, this study similarly failed to report any sort of real-world adverse consequences associated with cannabis use:
[excerpt] Using high–resolution MRI imaging, scientists identified specific changes in particular regions of the brain that they inferred were likely due to marijuana exposure. (Since researchers only performed a single MRI session, they could not say definitively whether these changes were, in fact, caused by cannabis or whether they existed prior to subjects’ use of the plant.) Notably, however, these changes did not appear to be associated with any overt adverse effects in subjects’ actual cognition or behavior. (Separate studies assessing youth use of legal intoxicants, such as nicotine and alcohol, have also been associated with documented changes in brain structure. Ditto for caffeine intake in preclinical models. These findings have received far less media attention.)
Both the cases (20 marijuana users) and controls (20 nonusers) in the study were recruited from local universities, undermining the notion that the alleged ‘brain damaged potheads’ were any more academically challenged than their non-using peers. Further, as summarized by HealthDay: “Psychiatric interviews revealed that the pot smokers did not meet criteria for drug dependence. For example, marijuana use did not interfere with their studies, work or other activities, and they had not needed to increase the amount they used to get the same high.”
In other words, case subjects and controls appeared to function similarly in their professional and academic endeavors.
You can read the full text of my response here.
[Update: I have a separate op/ed ("Smoke weed, turn into a pothead? Not so fast") responding to this paper online in The Los Angeles Times here.]
Fortunately, my critique of this latest paper — and in particular the mainstream media’s sensationalist and erroneous coverage of its findings — is far from the only one. Below are links to several other excellent analyses:
Bits of DNA (blog): Does researching casual marijuana use cause brain abnormalities?
Recent preclinical studies published over the past several weeks provide further evidence that cannabinoids are both neuroprotective and cardioprotective.
A May 30th blog post on the website Science20.com sums up new findings from Israel regarding the ability of low doses of THC to prevent brain damage in animals.
Prof. Yosef Sarne in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Tel Aviv University says that [cannabis] … has neuroprotective qualities. He has found that extremely low doses of THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana — protects the brain from long-term cognitive damage in the wake of injury from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), seizures, or toxic drugs.
Previous studies focused on injecting high doses of THC within a very short time frame – approximately 30 minutes – before or after injury. Sarne’s papers in Behavioural Brain Research and Experimental Brain Research say that even extremely low doses of THC – around 1,000 to 10,000 times less than that in a conventional marijuana cigarette – administered over a wide window of 1 to 7 days before or 1 to 3 days after injury can jump-start biochemical processes which protect brain cells and preserve cognitive function over time.
… In the lab, the researchers injected mice with a single low dose of THC either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. A control group of mice sustained brain injury but did not receive the THC treatment. When the mice were examined 3 to 7 weeks after initial injury, recipients of the THC treatment performed better in behavioral tests measuring learning and memory. Additionally, biochemical studies showed heightened amounts of neuroprotective chemicals in the treatment group compared to the control group.
… This treatment, especially in light of the long time frame for administration and the low dosage, could be applicable to many cases of brain injury and be safer over time, Sarne says.
NORML has previously reported on separate preclinical data documenting that cannabinoids can promote neurogenesis (the active production of new neurons) in laboratory animals as well observational data indicating that marijuana may provide neuroprotection against alcohol-induced impairment in adolescent subjects.
In addition, recently published preclinical studies also indicate that cannabinoids may offer benefits to the heart. Animal data published in the June issue of the scientific journal Biochemical Pharmacology reports that THC administration “is a safe and effective treatment that reduces myocardial ischemic (heart attack) damage.” Authors concluded: “[O]ur study provides novel evidence for the beneficial use of extremely low doses of THC, doses that do not elicit any psychoactive side effects, in order to protect the heart from ischemic insults. THC can be used as a pre-conditioning drug in cases in which ischemic insult to the heart is anticipated, such as during cardiac surgery or percutaneous coronary intervention. If post-conditioning with THC will be found effective, it could also be used following myocardial infarction.”
The results of a separate preclinical trial, published in May in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, report that the administration of the non-psychotropic cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) is protective against cardiotoxicity in rats. “[C]annabidiol ameliorated doxorubicin-induced cardiac injury,” the study concluded. “These results indicate that cannabidiol represents a potential protective agent.”
In February of this year, investigators at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel also reported that the administration of delta-9-THC protects heart muscle cells from injury during hypoxia (a deficiency in the levels of oxygen in the blood). THC “delaying the onset of irreversible cell injury … on hypoxia-exposed cardiac cells in culture,” authors found. They concluded, “This research demonstrates that THC has beneficial effects on cardiac cells and supports the consideration of marijuana for specific medical uses.”
[Editor's note: This post is excerpted from this week's forthcoming NORML weekly media advisory. To have NORML's media alerts and legislative advisories delivered straight to your in-box, sign up here.]
Investigators at the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University, Center for Mental Health Research assessed the impact of cannabis use on various measures of memory and intelligence in over 2,000 self-identified marijuana consumers and non-users over an eight-year period. Among cannabis consumers, subjects were grouped into the following categories: ‘heavy’ (once a week or more) users, ‘light’ users, ‘former heavy’ users, ‘former light’ users, and ‘always former’ — a category that consisted of respondents who had ceased using marijuana prior to their entry into the study.
Researchers reported: “Only with respect to the immediate recall measure was there evidence of an improved performance associated with sustained abstinence from cannabis, with outcomes similar to those who had never used cannabis at the end point. On the remaining cognitive measures, after controlling for education and other characteristics, there were no significant differences associated with cannabis consumption.”
They concluded, “Therefore, the adverse impacts of cannabis use on cognitive functions either appear to be related to pre-existing factors or are reversible in this community cohort even after potentially extended periods of use.”
Separate studies have previously reported that long-term marijuana use is not associated with residual deficits in neurocognitive function. Specifically, a 2001 study published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry found that chronic cannabis consumers who abstained from the drug for one week “showed virtually no significant differences from control subjects (those who had smoked marijuana less than 50 times in their lives) on a battery of 10 neuropsychological tests. … Former heavy users, who had consumed little or no cannabis in the three months before testing, [also] showed no significant differences from control subjects on any of these tests on any of the testing days.”
Additionally, studies have also implied that cannabis may be neuroprotective against alcohol-induced cognitive deficits. A 2009 study by investigators at the University of California and San Diego reported that binge drinkers who also used cannabis experienced significantly less white matter damage to the brain as compared to subjects who consumed alcohol alone.
For more information regarding the impact of cannabis on brain function, see NORML’s factsheet ‘Cannabis and the Brain: A User’s Guide,’ here.
UPDATE!!! In a 12/29 e-mail communication with the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Newsroom Operations Manager (in reference to their coverage below), she pledges: “I will follow up with our online staff right now. We will get it corrected or taken down.” Yet, as of 11am pst today the story still appears online in its original form. Those who live in southern California may also wish to voice their opinion at: http://www.signonsandiego.com/contactus/.
For anyone who missed the worldwide corporate media’s hysterical anti-pot headlines last week, here’s a sampling:
Cannabis more damaging to adolescent brains than previously known
via Emax Health
“New research shows that teens who consume cannabis daily can suffer anxiety and depression. Smoking marijuana can have long-term irreversible effects on adolescent brains, and is more harmful to teens than previously known.”
Teen marijuana use affects brain permanently: study
via CBC News
“The findings suggest daily marijuana use by teens can cause depression and anxiety, and have an irreversible effect on the brain.”
Pot damage on teens worse than thought
via UPI wire services
“Daily consumption of marijuana in teens can cause depression and anxiety, and have irreversible long-term effect on the brain, Canadian researchers say.”
Cannabis brain damage worse in teens than thought: study
via The Canadian Press
“The effects of daily cannabis use on teenage brains is worse than originally thought, and the long-term effects appear to be irreversible, new research from McGill University suggests.”
Sounds scary, huh? It’s meant to. Only there’s three serious problems with the mainstream media’s alarmist coverage.
1) No adolescents — or for that matter, any human beings whatsoever — actually participated in the study.
2) No actual cannabis was consumed in the study.
3) No permanent brain damage was reported in the study.
Don’t believe me? Well then, check out the actual source of the headlines yourself.
“We tested this hypothesis by administering the CB(1) receptor agonist WIN55,212-2, once daily for 20 days to adolescent and adult rats. … Chronic adolescent exposure but not adult exposure to low (0.2 mg/kg) and high (1.0 mg/kg) doses led to depression-like behaviour in the forced swim and sucrose preference test, while the high dose also induced anxiety-like consequences in the novelty-suppressed feeding test. … These (findings) suggest that long-term exposure to cannabinoids during adolescence induces anxiety-like and depression-like behaviours in adulthood and that this may be instigated by serotonergic hypoactivity and noradrenergic hyperactivity.”
To summarize: Investigators administered daily doses of a highly potent synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonist WIN,55,212-2 to both adolescent rats and adult rats for 20 days. Days following their exposure, researchers documented altered serotonin production in younger rats. (Why investigators presumed that the change in serotonin production would be permanent I have no idea. After the initial 20-day waiting period, researchers do not appear to have tested the rats’ serotonin levels ever again.) Researchers also documented supposed depression-like and anxiety-like behavior in certain rats, based on various elaborate animal models and preference tests.
Yet somehow based on this speculative preclinical evidence, the mainstream media — in unison — proclaimed:
via San Diego Tribune
“A study of Canadian teenagers … found that smoking the illicit drug is harder on young brains than originally thought. Writing in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, researchers at McGill University in Montreal said daily consumption of cannabis in teens can cause significant depression and anxiety and have an irreversible long-term effect on the brain.”
In truth, the purported ‘study’ never said anything of the sort!
So why the does the MSM consistently get the story wrong when it comes to pot? You can check out my previous thoughts on the issue here.
Apparently my latest missive has hit a nerve — as it has quickly risen to become the most read story on Alternet.
5 Things the Corporate Media Don’t Want You to Know About Cannabis
1. Marijuana Use Is Not Associated With a Rise in Incidences of Schizophrenia
2. Marijuana Smoke Doesn’t Damage the Lungs Like Tobacco
3. Cannabis Use Potentially Protects, Rather Than Harms, the Brain
4. Marijuana Is a Terminus, Not a ‘Gateway,’ to Hard Drug Use
5. Government’s Anti-Pot Ads Encourage, Rather Than Discourage, Marijuana Use
Read the full text of the story here.