The Neurobiology of Cannabis Abuse — by Dr. Keerthy Sunder

Dr. Keerthy Sunder

marijuanausersMarijuana continues to be one of the most widely used substances throughout the United States and Europe. Marijuana dependence is marked by continued usage despite ensuing social, psychological, and physical deficiencies. Additional deleterious impacts of marijuana dependence can include family and relationship issues, financial difficulties, depleted energy, reduced self-esteem, cycles of unproductivity, sleep disturbances, memory problems and a general dissatisfaction with life. Those suffering from this form of addiction perceive themselves as unable to stop, and most experience a period of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.

An increasing body of clinical evidence suggests that cannabis may compromise the prefrontal cortex of the brain, thereby inducing impairment in an array of complex cognitive functions. The younger the user, the greater the propensity for abnormal changes in brain structures. This is particularly notable in the memory centers of the brain. A poor working memory is often a catalyst for poor academic and professional outcomes and an overall decrease in quality of life. These induced brain anomalies have been often witnessed up to two years after cessation of marijuana use, indicating possible extended term damage from chronic cannabis exposure. The respective damage to these memory-related brain structures may result in shrinkage and inward collapsing of the neurons. Marijuana related structural damages strongly resemble the brain abnormalities associated with Schizophrenia. Research has shown that structural brain changes can vastly impact the organ’s functionality.

Chronic marijuana usage in young adults is additionally associated with exposure-dependent alterations of the Nucleus Accumbens and the Amygdala (the core neural reward structures) which affect motivation, decision making and emotions. Effective strategies for marijuana cessation must address these types of underlying brain dysregulation. EEG neurofeedback is an appropriate therapeutic avenue for achieving better brain regulation. As the brain begins to self-regulate from neurofeedback entrainment, marijuana utilization becomes superfluous. Users feel far less compelled to “get high” when their brains are performing optimally with decreased levels of anxiety, tension, pain and stress.

As the movement to decriminalize marijuana increases momentum, it is important for individuals to understand the way that accessible substances may interact with their brain. These findings are critical for teens and young adults who are at increased risk for developing structural brain damage from protracted marijuana use.

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