Skip to main content

Marijuana and Brain Cells: How Does Marijuana Affect Your Brain?

Marijuana is rapidly becoming legal throughout the U.S. As it does, usage is likely to increase, especially among those who were previously scared off by potential legal ramifications. With the easing of restrictions and the increase in availability, you might be wondering is weed bad for your brain? Here’s what the research has revealed so far.

Studies indicate that prolonged marijuana abuse can indeed impact brain activity. It can specifically target the brain’s ability to transmit messages. Researchers have observed a variety of symptoms they believe are related to marijuana and brain cells.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is weed’s predominant psychoactive ingredient. There are receptors in the brain called cannabinoid receptors that bind with THC. These receptors are officially known as cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1).

These receptors connect to nerves in the brain that govern memory, appetite, pain regulation, and mood. They’re situated in both the central and peripheral nervous systems.

After getting high on cannabis, you might have trouble focusing on a task or remembering things you usually don’t forget. Chronic marijuana use can make matters worse. You might develop ongoing memory loss or suffer from perpetually poor concentration. Weed can even affect the motor skills involved in driving a vehicle.

Nevertheless, researchers have yet to identify with certainty all the potential long-term effects.

Interaction Between Marijuana and Brain Cells

Short-term Marijuana Effects

  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Anxiety and paranoia
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Inability to accurately perceive distances

Long-Term Marijuana Effects

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Memory loss
  • Dependence
  • Higher tolerance
  • Increased risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs

Synthetic Marijuana

Long-Term Marijuana Effects

This designer drug is sprayed on plant material to create fake marijuana that gives users a hallucinogenic high. The drug is thought to have caused an upsurge in emergency room visits when it was first introduced.

Synthetic weed is presently considered unsafe for human consumption. It can cause anxiety and psychotic symptoms that real THC typically prevents.

Like real marijuana, the fake marijuana produces its effects by stimulating certain cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Although the drug does mimic the effects of marijuana to some degree, there are significant differences between synthetic weed and the real thing.

Research is limited, but preliminary studies suggest that synthetic marijuana can produce a wide range of mostly disagreeable effects:

  • Feeling stimulated and energetic
  • Increased appetite
  • Altered perception or euphoria
  • A dream-like state
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Memory problems
  • Psychosis
  • Paranoia and odd or unusual behavior
  • Agitation, aggression or violence
  • Increased heart rate
  • Unexplained bleeding
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac issues
  • Stroke
  • Kidney and brain damage
  • Respiratory failure
  • Loss of consciousness

Synthetic marijuana is a full agonist with high efficacy. A full agonist commands a full CB1 receptor response while occupying only a few receptors itself. THC by contrast is a partial agonist with considerably less efficacy.

With full agonist ability, fake marijuana can produce effects that are 100 times more potent than what you would typically experience with real cannabis. Furthermore, because CB1 receptors are situated all over the brain and spinal cord, the effects from fake weed can be widespread, damaging, and intense.

Over time, fake weed can decrease brain cell activity while producing the distasteful symptoms listed above.

Is It True That Smoking Weed Kills Brain Cells?

Short-term Marijuana EffectsStudies suggest that marijuana can cause cognitive deficits in adults who have used marijuana in childhood. However, the extent of impairment seems to depend on when you started using, how long you’ve used, and how much you’re using now.

Marijuana usually has a calming effect. However, in tandem with other substances, it has the potential to be harmful. Does marijuana really kill brain cells?

According to the NIH National Institute of Drug Abuse, researchers who study the link between marijuana and reduced IQ scores do not always get the same results. Therefore, their findings to date are inconclusive.

It’s difficult to prove that marijuana causes IQ score deficiency when so many variables come into play. A host of other factors can reduce IQ scores just as easily as marijuana.

Lower scores can result from early childhood trauma, poor quality of education, genetics, age of initial cannabis use, and duration of use to name just a few.

Although there may be a correlation between lower IQ scores and marijuana use, there’s just not enough information at this time to reliably ascertain whether marijuana lowers children’s IQ scores or not.

Studies on Children

In one study, researchers found that children who use THC can develop deficits in cognition and memory when they become adults. The investigators found a correlation between regular marijuana use in children and adolescents and lower IQ scores when those children and adolescents reached adulthood.

People who began using marijuana as children lost six to eight IQ points by the time they reached middle age. Children who had been weed users and then stopped did not regain any IQ points. Adults who began using marijuana in adulthood did not lose any IQ points.

Substances that affect the brain, marijuana included, have a stronger effect on people under the age of 25 because their brains are still developing. The adverse effects of marijuana on the brain are most pronounced in those who start using cannabis early.

Animal Studies

Substantial evidence from animal studies indicates that ingesting marijuana during early development can lead to long-term or even permanent changes in brain capacity. Rats who were exposed to THC before they were born, immediately after birth, and during adolescence, all developed pronounced difficulty with certain learning and memory tasks after becoming adults.

Adult rats exposed to cannabis in adolescence had impaired cognition that included marked modifications in the hippocampal area of the brain.

Adolescent exposure to weed also appears to alter the reward system by making the rat more likely to self-administer a shot of heroin when given the opportunity. This finding may indeed support the notion that smoking weed kills brain cells.

Imaging Studies

Imaging studies of marijuana’s effect on human brain tissue have produced conflicting results. Some researchers maintain that there are no significant differences between the brains of people who use weed and those who don’t.

Other studies suggest that chronic marijuana use in adolescence alters brain connectivity and reduces the volume of brain areas that support executive functions such as forming memories, learning new tasks, and controlling impulsivity.

Studies With Young Adults

Almost five thousand young adults in a coronary artery risk development study were tracked over 25 years until mid-adulthood. The researchers found that lifelong marijuana use appeared to have a cumulative effect and was associated with reduced scores on a verbal memory test.

THC appears to have no direct effect on cognitive abilities like processing speed. That was a significant finding that persisted even after adjusting for demographics, other substance use, and mental health issues.

Two longitudinal twin studies found that young twins who used marijuana showed a significant loss of verbal ability equivalent to four IQ points.

The twins also displayed overall deficits in general knowledge. Cognitive deficiencies were observed during the preteen years, late adolescent years, and in early adulthood.

A shorter-term twin study found no significant differences between twins when one twin used marijuana and the other twin did not.

Why Is Weed Bad for Your Brain?

Synthetic MarijuanaMemory deficits associated with marijuana may result from how THC impacts the hippocampus. That part of your brain governs memory formation and determines how you process information. Most of the evidence supporting this theory comes from animal studies.

Rats who ingested THC prior to birth, soon after birth, or during adolescence developed marked difficulties with learning and memory tasks later in life. Deficits in cognition that appear in adult rats are thought to be a function of hippocampal damage caused by THC usage in adolescence.

The hippocampus may lose neurons as people age. That, in turn, reduces a person’s ability to integrate new information. Chronic use of THC may speed up the loss of hippocampal neurons over time.

In another study, rats received a daily dose of cannabis for eight months. That’s about one-third of a rat’s total lifespan. These animals exhibited marked nerve cell damage when they were about 12 months old. The amount of damage was equal to that of rats who were twice as old as the experimental animals.

So How Does Marijuana Affect Your Brain?

More research is needed to accurately answer this question. There is evidence that cannabis depresses functionality in the developing brains of children and adolescents. Nevertheless, more studies are needed to clarify whether brain impairment also occurs in those who avoid THC before adulthood.

Conclusions about marijuana’s long-term effects are based on past studies confounded by study participants using multiple substances. Additionally, there is usually inadequate data about the physical and mental health of the study participants.

More research is also needed to assess the effects of more potent marijuana strains and new cannabis products such as edibles.

The question of whether marijuana truly damages brain cells may not have a definitive answer yet. However, it is clear that marijuana use can pose risks to your brain health. If concerns about excessive cannabis use are weighing on you, know that support is available at Harmony Place.

To make our support more accessible, we accept health insurance from several providers. This includes Anthem Blue Cross rehab coverage, Aetna, Cigna, Blue Shield of CA, Carelon, and Humana. Our goal is to alleviate the financial stress often associated with treatment, allowing you to focus entirely on your journey towards recovery.

Contact Harmony Place in Woodland Hills, California, for more information.