Regular marijuana use in adolescence, but not adulthood, may permanently impair brain function and cognition, and may increase the risk of developing serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, according to a recent study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Researchers hope that the study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology — a publication of the journal Nature – will help to shed light on the potential long-term effects of marijuana use, particularly as lawmakers in Maryland and elsewhere contemplate legalizing the drug.
“Over the past 20 years, there has been a major controversy about the long-term effects of marijuana, with some evidence that use in adolescence could be damaging,” says the study’s senior author Asaf Keller, professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the shool of medicine. “Previous research has shown that children who started using marijuana before the age of 16 are at greater risk of permanent cognitive deficits and have a significantly higher incidence of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. There likely is a genetic susceptibility, and then you add marijuana during adolescence and it becomes the trigger.”
“Adolescence is the critical period during which marijuana use can be damaging,” says the study’s lead author, Sylvina Mullins Raver, a doctoral candidate. “We wanted to identify the biological underpinnings and determine whether there is a real, permanent health risk to marijuana use.”
The scientists began by examining cortical oscillations in mice. Cortical oscillations are patterns of the activity of neurons in the brain and are believed to underlie the brain’s various functions. The scientists exposed young mice to very low doses of the active ingredient in marijuana for 20 days, and then allowed them to return to their siblings and develop normally.
“In the adult mice exposed to marijuana ingredients in adolescence, we found that cortical oscillations were grossly altered, and they exhibited impaired cognitive abilities,” says Ms. Raver. “We also found impaired cognitive behavioral performance in those mice. The striking finding is that, even though the mice were exposed to very low drug doses, and only for a brief period during adolescence, their brain abnormalities persisted into adulthood.”
The scientists repeated the experiment, this time administering marijuana ingredients to adult mice that had never been exposed to the drug before. Their ability to perform cognitive behavioral tasks remained normal, indicating that it was only drug exposure during the critical period of adolescence that impaired cognition through this mechanism.