Could Marijuana Help Bipolar Disorder?
Marijuana has been shown to benefit a number of physical health problems, ranging from multiple sclerosis to type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer pain. But what about mental disorders? A new study found that use of cannabis (marijuana) could be helpful in improving certain neurocognitive functions in people who have bipolar disorder, a condition diagnosed in such notable individuals as Jesse Jackson Jr., Jane Pauley, and Sinead O'Connor.
How marijuana could help bipolar disorder
There's a tendency to believe that use of marijuana leads to mental health problems, and indeed there have been studies indicating that cannabis can trigger bipolar disorder in susceptible individuals or lead to early psychosis. On the other hand, research has also shown marijuana to be helpful in managing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia.
In this new study, a collaborative effort between researchers at The Zucker Hillside Hospital in Long Island, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, investigators explored the impact of marijuana on the cognitive performance of 50 individuals with bipolar disorder I who had a history of cannabis use compared with 150 people with the mental disorder and no history of cannabis use. All the participants were similar in racial background, age, and educational level, as well as when bipolar disorder was diagnosed.
Individuals who had a history of marijuana use showed "significantly better neurocognitive performance, particularly on measures of attention, processing speed, and working memory" than did the study participants who did not use marijuana, according to the researchers.
This finding is similar to the one reached by researchers at the University of Oslo and reported on in Psychological Medicine in 2010. In that study, 133 patients with bipolar disorder and 140 with schizophrenia were evaluated, along with their use of marijuana.
The Oslo investigators found that use of marijuana among bipolar disorder subjects was associated with improved neurocognitive function, but that this was not true for schizophrenia patients. Bipolar patients who used marijuana showed good focused attention, verbal fluency, logical memory learning, and memory recall.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder, which is also referred to as manic-depressive illness, as a brain condition that causes individuals to experience unusual and severe fluctuations in energy, mood, activity level, and their ability to conduct day-to-day tasks. There are four basic types of bipolar disorder.
Bipolar I disorder, which is the one evaluated in the current study, is mainly defined as experiencing manic (overly joyful or overexcited state) or mixed episodes (manic mixed with feeling extremely sad or hopeless) that last at least seven days, or experiencing severe manic symptoms that require hospitalization. People with bipolar II disorder shift back and forth between but do not suffer with full-blown manic or mixed episodes. Cyclothymic disorder is a mild form of bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder not otherwise specified (BP-NOS) is characterized by symptoms that don't last long enough or symptoms are too few to meet the criteria of bipolar I or II.
The authors of the latest study concluded that their findings could indicate that use of marijuana "may have a beneficial effect on cognitive functioning in patients with severe psychiatric disorders," although they also "may be due to the requirement for a certain level of cognitive function and related social skills in the acquisition of illicit drugs." Further research into the impact of marijuana on bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions is warranted.
Braga RJ et al. Cognitive and clinical outcomes associated with cannabis use in patients with bipolar I disorder. Psychiatry Research 2012. DOI:10.1016/j.psychres.2012.05.025
National Institute of Mental Health
Ringen PA et al. Opposite relationships between cannabis use and neurocognitive functioning in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Psychological Medicine 2010 Aug; 40(8): 1337-47
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