Marijuana is a drug that interferes with how neurons in the brain send, receive, and process signals through neurotransmitters—and its use has indeed been associated with some functional brain abnormalities. But does weed kill brain cells? What is the risk of experiencing adverse effects on one’s mental health state and cognitive abilities when marijuana is used regularly?
How Marijuana Interferes With Brain Function
Experts do not currently believe that marijuana use harms or destroys brain cells. However, its effects on the brain can be diverse and include the inhibition of short-term memories, time perception distortion, and appetite regulation. THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana, is the catalyst for interference with cannabinoid receptors in the brain.
After a user smokes or otherwise ingests marijuana, it’s chemicals make their way into the bloodstream, which then carries it throughout the body. Cannabis contains molecules (cannabinoids) similar to those produced in the brain. Once THC crosses the blood-brain barrier, it attaches to these receptors, which are then directly influenced by the chemical.
Short-Term Effects of Marijuana on the Brain
Memory Inhibition – One of the most infamous short-term effects of marijuana is that chronic users may find it difficult to recall recent events. This is because marijuana has an inhibitory effect on the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for forming memories.
Distorted Perception of Time – One of the most commonly reported effects experienced by marijuana users is a distorted perception of time. This phenomenon occurs due to marijuana’s impact on the cerebellum and altered blood flow to that brain region. Among other functions, the cerebellum controls the brain’s internal timing system.
Decision-Making and Problem-Solving – The prefrontal cortex is responsible for abilities including thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control. Marijuana’s effects on this circuit can lead to increased impulsivity, poor decisions, and an inability to address problems appropriately.
Appetite Regulation – Marijuana use also impacts the hypothalamus, part of the brain that regulates appetite. This effect can increase appetite significantly, also commonly referred to as “the munchies.”
Talkativeness and Laughter – Talkativeness and a heightened sense of humor are common effects associated with marijuana use. During a marijuana high, the brain releases extra amounts of the rewarding neurochemical dopamine, which is responsible for intense feelings of well-being. Due to these effects, sociability and laughter may come more naturally.
Drowsiness – One of the many short-term effects of marijuana use is drowsiness. Its impact on cannabinoid receptors in the brain can promote restfulness, relaxation, and sleep.
Coordination and Reaction Time – Marijuana can adversely affect both the motor skill coordination and reaction times of a user. This occurs because THC interferes with activity in both the cerebellum and basal ganglia, and brain signals are affected similarly to a person who has had a few alcoholic drinks. This is one reason why driving while under the influence of marijuana is illegal, just like alcohol.
Long-Term Effects of Marijuana on the Brain
An increasing number of human studies have revealed some potential chronic effects of marijuana on the brain. Although cannabis use doesn’t appear to cause structural damage, excessive marijuana use can reduce mental focus over time.
Harvard University scientists examined the cognitive performance of persons in 2001 who had once used marijuana and had discontinued use. The study revealed that marijuana use does not appear to produce permanent mental impairment.
Also, a 2015 study by the University of Colorado Boulder found that individuals who used cannabis did not show signs of structural changes in essential brain regions.
Instead, marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain have been shown to have the potential for the following:
Decline in IQ – Studies have suggested that smoking marijuana can irreversibly lower IQ and may be one of the most detrimental effects of cannabis on teenagers. For example, much-publicized findings related to a study of 1000 young New Zealanders found that those who were marijuana-dependent by their 18th birthday and continued to use excessively experienced an average of an 8 point reduction in IQ at the next time of testing at age 38. This decline may be sufficient to yield an adverse impact on an individual’s academic and professional capabilities.
Addiction – The development of problematic marijuana use is one of the drug’s many potential effects. In severe cases, it can result in dependence and addiction. Moreover, when a person cannot discontinue the use of marijuana despite the incurrence of adverse effects, addiction has most likely emerged. This can occur because marijuana activates the brain’s reward and pleasure system, ultimately leading to repeated use and addictive behavior.
Mental Health Risks – Unfortunately, the use of marijuana does come with some potential for the development of mental health issues. In fact, research has revealed a clear link between marijuana use and mental health, particularly among those who start using cannabis at an early age. Mental health disorders associated with marijuana use include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Treatment for Marijuana Abuse
Recovering from marijuana dependence is best achieved through the use of long-term, professional help. Just Believe Detox and Just Believe Recovery are specialized and accredited addiction treatment centers that feature comprehensive programs and essential evidence-based services. These include behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, group support, relapse prevention, art and music therapies, aftercare planning, and much more.