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Cannabis and the Teen Brain

The Debate on The Impact of Cannabis on the Teen Brain

For those of you medical cannabis patients with teenagers, one of the most difficult decisions is deciding when to allow your teenagers to try cannabis. The conventional wisdom has been that prolonged THC usage had long-term, detrimental side effects on the functioning of the teenage brain. The latest research review of 40 years of data just published disputes this theory. This article examines the research on both sides of the debate. I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions and act accordingly.

During the teenage years, as the adolescent brain matures, executive functioning and emotional self-control become more developed. Past research suggests that cannabis usage could interfere with this development. We now know that the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce play an important roll in wiring the neuron connections in our brains from the womb to adulthood. They regulate our appetite, sleep, ability to control one’s emotions, and memory. Some researchers believe that cannabis usage could interfere with these very delicate processes and derail them, posing long-term harm.

According to Neurologist Yasmin Hurd, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, the ever changing concentrations of endocannabinoids in the teenage brain may be deleteriously impacted by using cannabis. Some researchers use MRIs to substantiate this theory when examining the brains of habitual users vs nonusers. They see an alteration in the connections between the brain hemispheres, a reduction in the size of the amygdala (emotional regulation) and hippocampus (memory), and a decrease in cognitive processing.

Other researchers disagree. A conclusion based on the data gathered from multiple studies suggests that the teenage brain may return to pre-use function within as little as 72 hours of abstinence. Neuropsychologist J. Cobb Scott, University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, collated information from 69 research studies which examined memory and deficits in thinking of heavy teenage cannabis users vs nonusers.

 Association of Cannabis With Cognitive Functioning in Adolescents and Young Adults, was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in June, 2018. Participants included 2,152 male cannabis users and 6,575 male comparison participants with minimal use, ranging in age from 18 to 30 years old. The median age was 20 years old. The conclusion was that although there were measurable differences in mental acuity between heavy cannabis users and nonusers, they were smaller than expected. The research suggests that abstinence of longer than 72 hours was adequate to see a significant decrease in cognitive deficits in heavy cannabis users. According to Scott, “The length of abstinence was associated with how big the effect size was.” No other outcomes (eg. psychosis) were examined in these studies. However, it is thought that previous studies on cannabis usage and the teenage brain exaggerated the extent and endurance of cognitive impairment. They further discovered that the risk of memory loss was not tied to adolescence. Young adults demonstrated the same risks to memory as did adolescents and the same response to cannabis abstinence. These studies did not examine the effects of cannabis usage on the brains of long-term users.

Also noteworthy is that none of these studies, which spanned 40 years of research, bothered to investigate the impact of cannabis on stimulating creativity and problem-solving in the teenage brain. These are 2 abilities that are often enhanced by cannabis usage.

There you have it. I will leave you to do what you think is best for your own teenagers!

BTW, my 18 year old son wants no part of trying cannabis. My husband and I thought he would be “chomping at the bit” to try it. We were prepared to invite him to try it with us when he was 16. Not only is he not interested, but he complains about the smell and says it smells like “skunk.” What a role reversal….the teenager complaining about his parents’ cannabis usage!

Source:, What Pot Really Does to the Teen Brain, Claudia Wallis, December, 2017, Does Pot Really Dull a Teen’s Brain?, Dennis Thompson, April 18, 2018

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