If you’re a health-conscious individual interested in how cannabis might enhance your wellness regimen, you may be concerned about how consuming cannabis can affect your brain.
A significant amount of research has been and continues to be conducted in this area. In this post, we’ll explore the mechanisms of how cannabis interacts with the brain before diving into an explanation of the short-term and long-term impacts of cannabis consumption on brain function. We’ll also provide a brief overview of how cannabidiol (CBD), one of the two main compounds in the cannabis plant, affects your brain.
To understand how marijuana affects your brain, you’ll first need to understand the endocannabinoid system.
The ECS (ECS) is a complex network comprised of endocannabinoids (i.e., cannabinoids produced by the human body), cannabinoid receptors, “and the proteins that transport, synthesize and degrade endocannabinoids,” tasked with maintaining homeostasis in the body by regulating everything from sleep to eating patterns. Nearly every animal species, with the exception of insects and protozoa, has an ECS.
There are two main types of receptors in the ECS: CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are located primarily in the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord) and, among other functions, can regulate neurotransmitter release of dopamine, GABA, and glutamate.
The cannabis plant, in its many forms, contains over a 100 different phytocannabinoids (i.e., plant-based cannabinoids) in different proportions. These phytocannabinoids can mimic the cannabinoids produced by the body and affect the ECS in similar ways.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive phytocannabinoid credited with producing the euphoric “high” typically associated with cannabis consumption. THC is primarily a CB1 receptor agonist, meaning that it activates CB1 receptors, and this interaction is the main way cannabis interacts with your brain. CBD, a non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid, doesn’t interact with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, but instead shows some affinity for acting upon alternative, or allosteric, binding sites.
Acute cannabis exposure, the technical term for the single event of a bong rip or swallowing of an edible, is associated with a range of effects that reflect the effects of THC on the brain.
As a 2021 review article explains: “One of the main features of cannabis intoxication is the neurocognitive change that takes place while using or immediately after using cannabis. Intoxication starts with a period during which the user feels high and also experiences symptoms of neurocognitive impairment (as exemplified by reductions in attention and motor function, impulse control and memory, and alterations of consciousness).”
The same article adds that acute cannabis exposure can “impair learning and recall of novel information” and that the intensity of these effects is often dependent on the dose consumed. Genetic factors, as well as differences in personality, age, and sex, may also affect how symptoms of cannabis intoxication present.
There is also “strong evidence that acute effects of THC on neurocognitive function are less prominent in chronic cannabis users, suggesting the development of cannabis tolerance following frequent consumption,” the review article’s authors state. The differences between how cannabis-naive individuals and those with a tolerance react to acute cannabis exposure can lead to complications when it comes to comparing different studies and clarifying how marijuana affects the brain.
With long-term, consistent use, cannabis might produce residual effects on cognition that echo the effects of acute exposure. While the current evidence is somewhat mixed, it seems that starting cannabis consumption at an earlier age might increase an individual’s chances of experiencing those long-term effects.
These long-term effects can include “altered connectivity and reduced volume of specific brain regions involved in a broad range of executive functions such as memory, learning, and impulse control compared to people who do not use,” according to a research report published by the National Institutes of Health in 2020, though the results of the studies supporting these claims have not always been consistently replicated.
Chronic cannabis consumers might find growing impairments in terms of memory and attention that become more noticeable the longer they continue to consume, a 2022 review article adds, noting that more recent studies examining the neurodegenerative properties of THC complicate findings of the past.
Furthermore, despite a common misperception, cannabis can absolutely be an addictive substance. Sometimes referred to as cannabis use disorder (CUD), this condition is very much a result of how cannabis affects the brain by impacting how the central nervous system and ECS process reward. Individuals with CUD may have decreased CB1 receptor density and function, and about 10% of the estimated 193 million cannabis users across the world fit the diagnostic criteria for CUD.
The vast majority of the risks related to cannabis use covered in the above sections are related to THC consumption.
In contrast, CBD, the other main phytocannabinoid found in cannabis plants, has caught researchers’ attention for its potential to help treat a range of neurological, psychological, and psychiatric issues, according to a 2023 review article.
There is ample evidence, for example, supporting the use of CBD for chronic non-cancer pain, neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression (including depression symptoms associated with chronic THC consumption), anxiety, psychosis, and addictive behaviors.
Whether consuming CBD and THC together will offset the latter’s potential negative effects remains a matter of debate, though some Jointly users have reported success in combining the two cannabinoids.
The non-intoxicating nature of CBD makes it particularly intriguing, as it allows for more flexibility in terms of applications and dosing in comparison to THC. Dosing for CBD is complicated by the cannabinoid’s low bioavailability when consumed orally via the CBD oils and tinctures commonly found through retailers.
“Drug administration to the CNS is difficult because it needs to be systemically absorbed first, followed by crossing the blood–brain barrier via passive diffusion” the article’s authors explain. In response to this challenge, some researchers are exploring the costs and benefits of intranasal and inhalation consumption methods for CBD.
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So if you're ready to find your best products and enjoy your perfect cannabis experience, download the Jointly app today on the App Store or Google Play, or shop your matches on the Jointly website. Discovery awaits.