Skunk-like Marijuana May Damage a Crucial Part of the Brain

First Posted: Nov 30, 2015 10:28 AM EST

Smoking "skunk-like" cannabis may damage a crucial part of the brain responsible for communication between the two brain hemispheres. Scientists have taken a closer look at cannabis use and found that it may have more side effects than previously thought.

Researchers have known for some time that long-term cannabis use increases the risk of psychosis. Recent evidence actually suggests that alterations in brain function and structure may be responsible for this greater vulnerability. However, this new research is the first to examine the effect of cannabis potency on brain structure.

Exploring the impact of cannabis potency is particularly important since today's high potency products have higher proportions of THC than they did about a decade ago.

In this latest study, the researchers examined white matter in the brains of 56 patients who had reported a first episode of psychosis, as well as 43 healthy participants from the local community. The scientists specifically examined the corpus callosum, the largest white matter structure in the brain, which is responsible for communication between the left and right hemispheres. White matter consists of large bundles of nerve cell projects, called axons, which connect different regions of the brain, enabling communication between them.

"We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibers in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not," said Paola Dazzan, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be."

In fact, the frequent use of high potency cannabis was linked to significantly higher mean-diffusivity (MD), which is a marker of damage in white matter structure.

"As we have suggested previously, when assessing cannabis use it is extremely important to gather information on how often and what type of cannabis is being used," said Dazzan. "These details can help quantify the risk of mental health problems and increase awareness on the type of damage these substances can do to the brain."

The findings are published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

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