Can medical cannabis really improve the way your brain works?
For many supporters of prohibition, cannabis use is often associated with a deterioration in mental abilities. Fuelled by Reefer Madness-era propaganda, the anti-cannabis lobby pushes the idea that just one use of cannabis could seriously damage your brain and the way it functions.
Those who do not want cannabis available as a first-option medication argue that the dangers far outweigh the benefits. Thankfully, due to detailed scientific research, we now have a better understanding of the true impact medical cannabis has on the brain.
A groundbreaking study from McLean Hospital, Massachusetts, has found new evidence that the impact medical cannabis has on the brain is a positive one.
Studying 22 medical cannabis patients for three-months, researchers found that medical cannabis actually improved task performance as well as changes in brain activation patterns.
Amazingly, brain activity in the the study participants after three months of medical cannabis use appeared similar to those shown in healthy, non-cannabis patients, suggesting that medical cannabis has the potential to normalise brain function relative to baseline, i.e. recover your brain function to what it was.
As well as improving brain function, the researchers noted, perhaps inevitably, that participants also reported improvements in clinical state and health-related measures as well as notable decreases in pharmaceutical medication use, particularly opioids and benzodiapezines following 3 months of medical cannabis treatment.
All patients (11 male, 11 female) were between the ages of 28–74 who reported seeking MMJ treatment for a variety of conditions including pain (13), anxiety/PTSD (10), sleep (10), mood (8), and “other” conditions (8), such as gastrointestinal issues, difficulty with attention, etc.
“Significant improvements” were reported by patients on measure of depression, impulsivity, sleep, and quality of life.
Patients also demonstrated significantly improved energy/fatigue and fewer role limitations due to physical health, which reflects how often patients’ physical health affects their work and other life activities. A trend also emerged suggesting improved social functioning. Patients also reported notable decreases in their use of opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and mood stabilisers.
The researchers believe that it is possible that reductions in conventional medications also influenced changes in brain activation patterns. Medical cannabis allows patients to come off dangerous pharmaceuticals which negatively impact their mood while offering minimal relief from pain.
For the study, 41 MMJ (medical cannabis) patients were enrolled onto the research programme. Of these, only 22 were selected for further study, as their pre-MMJ treatment data was available as a control. To qualify for the study, participants had to be at least 18 and have an IQ of 75 or above.
In order to examine the effect of medical cannabis on task-related brain activation, researchers asked their MMJ patients to complete a Multi-Source Interference Test (MSIT) while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before they began medical cannabis treatment and three months after the start of the trial.
The patients were asked to certify their MMJ use and were required to have been abstinent from cannabis use for at least 2 years prior to the study to ensure that the researchers were investigating the impact of the cannabis provided by them rather than random doses of cannabis outside of the trial.
Patients reported using MMJ products an average of 5.34 days per week and 1.83 times per day for an overall average of 10.26 total episodes of MMJ use per week.
There was a wide-variety in the MMJ products patients used, including smoking and vaporising flower, as well as use of oil and concentrates (vaporised and oral administration), tinctures, edibles, and balms.
The researchers also collected data regarding conventional medication use, clinical state, and health-related measures at each visit to ensure the most reliable data was collected during the study.
Those eligible to participate were enrolled in a larger longitudinal study designed to assess the impact of MMJ on cognition and brain function over the course of 12–24 months. So far, we only have the results of the first 3 months of the study.
Researchers concluded that further research will be needed to clarify their findings, especially to compare the impact MMJ has on brain function vs the impact that recreational use has.
The results of the study suggest that not only does medical cannabis improve brain function, especially in those who have been subjected to years of pharmaceutical medications , but it improves a range of other areas in life, such as overall life quality and happiness.
Studies like these suggest that medical cannabis should be the first medication offered to patients rather than the last. Denying access to a medication which is scientifically proven to be safer and more effective than dangerous, addictive, pharmaceuticals offers no benefits to the patient. It only benefits those who are selling outdated medicinal products.
Despite medical cannabis being legalised in the UK on 1 Nov 2018, access to the potentially life-saving medication is hard to come by for the vast majority of patients in the UK. No prescriptions for medical cannabis have been granted on the NHS, forcing desperate families to seek out private prescriptions, which can cost up to £40,000 a year.
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References and further Reading
The Grass Might Be Greener: Medical Marijuana Patients Exhibit Altered Brain Activity and Improved Executive Function after 3 Months of Treatment