Marijuana Reduces Anxiety But There's a Catch
The link between use of marijuana and anxiety has been a controversial one, with some experts saying the drug is associated with anxiety as well as depression and bipolar disorder while users often claim it relieves anxiety. Now scientists have made a new find showing how marijuana reduces anxiety, but there’s a catch.
Let me first say the discovery was made in mice, not humans, so some additional work needs to be done to verity the findings. What the Vanderbilt University experts found were cannabinoid receptors, which are the structures through which marijuana makes its impact, in the nucleus of the amygdala.
The amygdala is located in medial temporal lobe and is a structure that is heavily involved in the processing of both positive and negative emotions. If the amygdala is damaged or there is a neurotransmitter imbalance, conditions such as anxiety, depression, and phobias can occur.
According to Sachin Patel, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and molecular physiology and biophysics and the senior author of the report, their discovery may explain why marijuana users say the drug reduces their anxiety. In another recent study, for example, a team looked at self-reported marijuana use among individuals in states where the drug has been legalized.
A total of 217 adults were evaluated. The reviewers found that medical marijuana users believed the drug was helpful for numerous conditions, including some not allowed by the states. They also reported marijuana was “particularly helpful” for social anxiety.
Now an exciting thing about the Vanderbilt study is that it is the first time cannabinoid receptors have been found in the central nucleus of the amygdala in mice. It is also is the first time anyone has demonstrated how nerve cells in the amygdala produce and release natural endocannabinoids.
Endocannabinoids are chemical compounds that humans and animals make naturally that activate the same receptors as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the active ingredient in marijuana. This discovery could add much to the accumulating knowledge about how marijuana affects the brain.
What’s the catch?
The catch is that chronic use of marijuana can actually increase one’s anxiety level because the drug can reduce the ability of the cannabinoid receptors to do their job effectively. If the body gets into this cycle—needing increasingly more marijuana to achieve the same antianxiety benefits--the individual could possibly become addicted to the drug, according to the authors.
What about age? Numerous studies, including a recent one from the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), have reported that regular use of marijuana among young people is harmful.
Specifically, the UMMC team noted that marijuana use could permanently damage cognition and brain function as well as increase a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia and other serious psychiatric conditions. The named risks, however, did not apply to adults, just the still-developing young brain.
This information raises a treasure trove of issues regarding use of the drug among young people, not least of which is the use of medical marijuana children.
The bottom line
Is moderation the key to success when using marijuana to manage anxiety, regardless of age? That is one possible course of action, but for now experts say they need more information about the relationship between anxiety, chronic use of marijuana, and the amygdala.
Bonn-Miller MO et al. Self-reported cannabis use characteristics, patterns and helpfulness among medical cannabis users. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 2014 Jan; 40(1): 23-33
Ramikie RS et al. Multiple mechanistically distinct modes of endocannabinoid mobilization at central amygdala glutamatergic synapses. Neuron 2014; 81(5): 1111
Raver SM et al. Adolescent cannabinoid exposure permanently suppresses cortical oscillations in adult mice. Neuropsychopharmacology 2013; DOI:10.1038/npp.2013.164