Casual Marijuana Use May Come With Some not-so-casual Side Effects.

REUTERS/Michael Kooren

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For the first time, researchers at Northwestern University have
analyzed the relationship between casual use of marijuana and brain
changes – and found that young adults who used cannabis just once or
twice a week showed significant abnormalities in two important brain

The study’s findings, to be published Wednesday in the Journal of Neuroscience,
are similar to those of past research linking chronic, long-term
marijuana use with mental illness and changes in brain development.

Dr. Hans Breiter, co-senior study author, said he was inspired to
look at the effects of casual marijuana use after previous work in his
lab found that heavy cannabis use caused similar brain abnormalities to
those seen in patients with schizophrenia.

“The interaction of marijuana with brain development could be a significant problem.”- Dr. Hans Breiter, co-senior study author

“There were abnormalities in their working memory, which is
fundamental to everything you do,” Breiter, a professor of psychiatry
and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of
Medicine, told  “When you make judgments or decisions, plan
things, do mathematics – anything you do always involves working
memory.  It’s one of the core fundamental aspects of our brains that we
use every day.  So given those findings, we decided we need to look at
casual, recreational use.”

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For their most recent study, Breiter and his team analyzed a very
small sample of patients between the ages of 18 and 25: 20 marijuana
users and 20 well-matched control subjects.  The marijuana users had a
wide range of usage routines, with some using the drug just once or
twice a week and others using it every single day.

Utilizing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers analyzed
the participants’ brains, focusing on the nucleus accumbens (NAC) and
the amygdala – two key brain regions responsible for processing
emotions, making decisions and motivation.  They looked at these brain
structures in three different ways, measuring their density, volume and

According to Breiter, all three were abnormal in the casual marijuana users.
“For the NAC, all three measures were abnormal, and they were
abnormal in a dose-dependent way, meaning the changes were greater with
the amount of marijuana used,” Breiter said.  “The amygdala had
abnormalities for shape and density, and only volume correlated with
use.  But if you looked at all three types of measures, it showed the
relationships between them were quite abnormal in the marijuana users,
compared to the normal controls.”

Because these brain regions are central for motivation, the findings
from Northwestern help support the well-known theory that marijuana use
leads to a condition called amotivation. Also called amotivational
syndrome, this psychological condition causes people to become less
oriented towards their goals and purposes in life, as well as seem less
focused in general.

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Given these eye-opening results,  Breiter said that more research is
needed to look into marijuana’s effects on the brain – even in those who
use the drug only once or twice a month.

“We need to see what happens longitudinally,” Breiter said. “What
happens as you follow people over time?  What happens if they stop using
– do these bad effects continue? What happens if you can intervene
early?…My worry is we haven’t studied this compound and here we are
looking to change legislation on it.”

Although Breiter’s team members did not examine the patients’
cognitive symptoms, they do believe that the brain abnormalities seen in
their study could lead to substantial effects on brain development and
behavior, especially given the young ages of the participants.  Breiter
also acknowledged the problems of analyzing a very small study sample –
but said that their findings should still serve as a wake-up call to

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“This study is just a beginning pilot study, but at the same time,
the results that came out are the same as a canary in a coal mine,”
Breiter said.  “…The interaction of marijuana with brain development
could be a significant problem.”

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