Recreational pot use harmful to young adult brain development

Before you light up that next joint and tell yourself that a little recreational pot never hurt anybody, you might want to reconsider. According to new findings released in the Journal of Neuroscience, just one or two joints a week is enough to change the shape, density and volume of gray matter in parts of the brain commonly associated with emotional responsiveness and decision making. While prior studies involving long-term cannabis use showed structural changes in the brain that appear similar to those found in schizophrenic patients, this study raises a new concern about the drug’s potential negative impact on brain development in young adults engaging in casual marijuana use.

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine chose 40 young adult college students aged 18 to 25. Half of them were marijuana users and the other half the control group. Frequency of use among the pot smokers ranged from less than twice a week to every day over a period of 90 days.

Employing magnetic resonance imaging, analysts studied the brains of both groups using a multidimensional approach. The brains of the young adults who made up the control group showed no changes. All 20 of the pot users’ brains, however, showed varying degrees of abnormality, with greater change corresponding to more frequent use. Although none of the subjects reported any difficulty with normal everyday functioning, social interactions or academic achievement, the changes were consistent with older studies that theorize the possibility that, over time, pot use can lead to loss of motivation and attentional difficulties.

Given long-term concerns about the effects of marijuana on the developing brain, Dr. Hans Breiter, professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg University School of Medicine and co-chair of the study, has raised the question of whether young adults should be allowed access to marijuana at all. Dr. Staci Gruber, psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, warns younger teens against recreational pot use, telling CNN that “exposure during a period of developmental vulnerability may result in neurophysiologic changes which could have long-term implications.”

Meanwhile, is it possible that advocates of recreational marijuana have jumped the gun on legalizing the use of a drug that could endanger the brains of America’s young? MedPage’s Deputy Managing Editor, John Gever, doesn’t think so, suggesting that the media has overly dramatized Breiter’s study and that the public would do well to “dial back the Reefer Madness hype.”

Washington and Colorado have already legalized the sale of recreational pot. Even more ironic is the fact that Colorado’s schools are the beneficiaries of all the taxes associated with marijuana sales. According to a recent poll conducted by Pew Research, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that, between marijuana and alcohol, pot is the safer of the two. This same majority has indicated that it also thinks that marijuana will be legalized in most states in the near future.

So, what do you think, America? Should the findings reported in the Journal of Neuroscience be dismissed as an overdramatization? Or, just maybe its time to put a hold on legalizing marijuana until more conclusive studies can reveal the whole picture. Think about it. Oh, and by the way, thinking is a higher process, so you’ll need your brain.