How Marijuana Effects The Developing Brain

Our brains are full of busy molecules that work together in a grand dance, offsetting and enhancing each other as the brain monitors and figures out how to steer us through life. Those molecules are the neurohormones; the major ones are dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, GABA, glutamate, histamines, endorphins, and acetylcholine – there are certainly important other ones as well.

Next post – an even closer look at marijuana and the developing brain

One of the others is cannabinoid – this is the substance found in marijuana. Ingesting marijuana causes the CB1 (cannabinoid) receptor to fire, and this causes modulation of dopamine. (You may see publications disagreeing with this, but on close review, the cannabinoids (and other abused drugs)  activate the mesocorticorticolimbic dopamine systems.)  Dopamine is used widely throughout the body –  it can affect blood pressure as well as produce psychological pleasure. But when there is too much, it can cause psychosis.  And when too low, it can cause depression.  Many consider dopamine seeking to be the basis of addiction.

The brain develops by intricate and always changing biochemical feedback circuits. At any time, the brain operates based on the ratios of natural neurohormones to organize experiences, induce pruning, repair itself, learn, set down memories, manage emotions, etc. The natural brain system is not designed for outside materials to push up or reduce down inborn hormonal levels. So when someone takes marijuana, they are giving non-natural signals to release dopamine. Two things happen. First, the brain learns based on an artificial stimulation – there is no learning from using marijuana. (How many people don’t really remember what they studied when they crammed the night before a test, using caffeine or other stimulants to ‘stay up.’) Then, secondly, the brain doesn’t have a real experience to learn and figure something out based on its own, native biochemistry. We want our brains to biologically develop by themselves. Consider the philosophy of Alcohol Anonymous. They focus on getting our brains to work without outside biochemical influences. Repeated exposures to artificial stimulations confuses, confounds and impedes.  A good example is considering the brain as an orchestra — at rehearsal everyone thinks the drum player is learning his part, but in fact the drummer is drumming because of marijuana, not real practice. So when the time comes for a real performance, the drummer without the presence of marijuana will not be up to par with the rest of orchestra.  

I’ve heard teenagers discredit drug using performers, but I’ve more than once gotten a feeling that the more emotionally immature or insecure adolescent secretly wonders if drug use will help them find success or take away the pain of failure.

The argument is made that many medications also increase dopamine release. That is true. Some popular performers claim to be be high when on stage;  this may also be true, but this is an exceptionally dangerous rationalization because most people are not exceptions.  The performer may have so much talent that even impeded, they have more talent then the average person, and yet many of them eventually get into trouble for their drug use. It’s risky to assume that “I am like that singer when I am high!”

Unlike street marijuana, properly used medications are monitored, pure substances, and they are being used for the correct diagnosis. Marijuana is often used for social or psychological reasons, not truly ‘chemical imbalance’ reasons. No physician would give a stimulant to a kid who was primarily socially nervous about asking a girl to dance – his brain doesn’t need extra dopamine release, it needs guidance and mentoring.  The psychological success will produce a repeatable and natural dopamine release.

There are, of course, people, even teenagers, who need medications. This is the gift of modern psychopharmacology. Those with brain illnesses can be helped in so many incredible ways. We can help with real depressions and phobias. But the risk is that many adolescents endanger their development if they use outside uncontrolled chemical influences to deal with their psychological pressures and problems.  

There is another argument often made that using a drug brings a person into a group, which in turn makes them feel wanted or gives them a sense of fellowship. The question is how many of them will outgrow the need for the continuing drug use as time goes by?  Will any on-going use of the drug skew the psychosocial development into long-term dangerous choices and patterns? Why can’t someone feel wanted without drug use being the admission ticket? And how will the regular drug use effect the brain’s development – this is a real concern.

People who outgrow drug use may be lucky that their frontal lobes eventually mature before too much neurological marring occurs.  It’s tragic but true — we often speak about kids with psychiatric conditions from drug use as “they took one too many hits of pot, and they stepped over that invisible but oh so real threshold…” 

More people are in treatment for mariana use than for cocaine use. This US White House Office of  Drug Abuse Policy offers good statistics.

The best initial treatment is what comes out of the mouth – talking about it – as opposed to what goes into the mouth – swallowing a drug or medication.  Sometimes, and only when appropriate, are both needed.  But I’ve never seen an adolescent benefit only from medication use. Even kids with straight ADHD can benefit from some counseling. “So what does it mean to you to have ADHD? Do you tell your friends?  Why does your Mom hide your meds from your friends? How different do you now feel?  How do we combine how you feel on meds and going after our goals?” 

There is a biochemistry of talking and teaching. The brain can change by talking!  Many kids know this; but unfortunately not all know how, or never have a chance or do not live in world where they can do it.  A great lesson to teach adolescents is how to change the world they live in; sadly, this can be extremely hard and risky in its own right. But hiding, using marijuana or other drugs, from learning how to change their world never gives them the right experience to help their neurological and psychological worlds to become healthier.

We need to add ‘talking’ and ‘giving them good models to follow’ to the list of neurohormones.


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Filed under adolescent brain, adolescent risk taking, brain development, frontal lobe, marijuana, substance abuse, teenage brain

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