Cannabis and brain aging: What’s the connection?
Cannabis is a controversial topic in the field of medical science. Known as pot, weed, grass or marijuana, the plant is mainly a recreational drug. But of late, the uses of cannabis extend beyond just that. It’s being explored for its therapeutic qualities. The pro-pot brigade go as far as to attribute some really miraculous qualities to the plant. They claim to have a strong case for legalising cannabis. Its medical benefits apart, legalising cannabis, they say, can reduce crimes, benefit the economy and even bring an end to drug cartels. That’s not all. They believe that its contraband status is unjustified because it doesn’t harm you like tobacco and alcohol does.
Cannabis is an illegal drug. Despite that, many countries have recognised the clinical benefits of its active ingredients. One of the biggest purported benefits is that it keeps the brain young. How well-rounded is that claim? Are the pro-cannabis groups exaggerating the benefits of pot on the brain?
A growing number of studies on animals indicate that marijuana exposure may have long-term effects on the brain. Rats exposed to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), an active ingredient in cannabis, are connected to memory and learning problems.
Brain imaging studies have confirmed that THC can cause structural changes to the hippocampus, an area in the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Studies have shown a link between pot use and hallucinations and paranoia. A 2016 study in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin studied 67,000 people to conclude that marijuana users were more at risk of schizophrenia.
Degenerative diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s, associated with old age, seem to react differently to marijuana. Although weed use is believed to age the brain by 2.8 years, certain findings show that Alzheimer’s symptoms can be abated with THC by improving memory and reducing nerve damage.
A 2016 study by the Salk University found that THC can help Alzheimer’s affected brain by breaking down toxic lumps of amyloid-beta protein, which triggers the disease.
Another study in the journal Nature Medicine showed that THC improved brain performance in middle-aged and elderly mice, improving their cognitive skills. This means that cannabis may slow down brain degeneration in the elderly, although it may have the reverse effect on young brains.
Researchers also found that THC also helped in reducing inflammation in the brain. This could point to cannabis’ benefits as a potential treatment option for Alzheimer’s patients.
To sum it up, there is no consensus on whether cannabis is beneficial for the brain or not. The studies paint a conflicting picture, mainly due to the different methodological used. While it may affect younger brains adversely, cannabis may benefit the elderly and offer ameliorative effects against degenerative brain diseases.