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More about how marijuana affects young brains uncovered

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Marijuana during adolescence could permanently change the brain.

A University of Maryland study shows adolescents that use marijuana regularly could suffer permanent changes in the brain, increasing the chances of mental illness.

Permanent brain changes from pot found in mice

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that marijuana can be especially damaging to the developing brain.

The study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, found mice exposed to low doses of marijuana for 20 days at a young age developed changes in brain oscillations in the frontal cortex of the brain that controls motivation, planning and cognitive function. But when the researchers repeated the experiment in adult mice, they found marijuana exposure did not affect the rodent's ability to carry out cognitive behavioral tasks.

The finding suggests marijuana used at an early age could lead to mental health disorders.

Senior study author Asaf Keller, Ph.D., Professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said in a press release, “Previous research has shown that children who started using marijuana before the age of 16 are at greater risk of permanent cognitive deficits, and have a significantly higher incidence of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. There likely is a genetic susceptibility, and then you add marijuana during adolescence and it becomes the trigger."

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Sylvina Mullins Raver, a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Neuroscience in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said the researchers wanted to find out if marijuana poses permanent health risks to adolescents.

The study authors suggest the finding should be considered by lawmakers.

Though the study was conducted in mice, the researchers believe the finding has implications for humans. It also lends support to past studies showing marijuana use before age-16 is associated with higher incidence of schizophrenia.

Raver says the finding was ‘striking’ because the mice were exposed to such a low dose.

Keller explains the frontal area of the brain develops during adolescence, making it much more susceptible to drugs. The same area is also the same as that affected by schizophrenia.

The finding suggests marijuana use during adolescence can have permanent consequences for brain development and potentially lead to mental health disorders. The researchers plan to explore the mechanisms in future studies to see if the effects can be reversed.

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