Everybody knows that ingesting cannabis will get you high, whether you smoke flower or chow down on some delicious cannabis edibles. But what most people don’t understand is exactly how cannabis affects the brain, or how it interacts with our brain to give us the euphoric feelings we like so much. Researchers are still working to unlock the truth about cannabis’ medical potential and how it affects the brain and body, but there are some studies available to help us understand a bit about weed’s effect on brain functions.
How Does Weed Effect the Brain?
To cut it short, cannabis affects the brain by interacting with the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is a bodily system full of CB receptors and endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids latch onto CB receptors to increase or decrease certain brain functions. Because the endocannabinoids that naturally occur in our body are so similar to the phytocannabinoids found in cannabis (like THC and CBD), cannabis is able to easily navigate the body’s endocannabinoid system.
There are two types of CB receptors found in the endocannabinoid system, including CB-1 and CB-2 receptors. CB-1 receptors are commonly found throughout the brain, while CB-2 receptors are generally part of the immune system. CB-1 receptors commonly bind with the body’s natural cannabinoid, anandamide.
Anandamide is commonly associated with feelings of bliss, and is named after the Sanskrit word for “bliss.” This endocannabinoid is structurally similar to THC, which means THC is able to easily bind with the CB-1 receptors in the brain. The two have similar effects, but the effects of anandamide are much shorter lived than the effects of THC.
Using the endocannabinoid system, cannabis is able to affect the brain in many ways, which may be why so many researchers are interested in its medicinal potential.
Short Term Effects of Weed on the Brain
Cannabis affects everyone differently, but the most prominent benefits lie in the short term effects of weed on the brain. These effects have been identified by many medical studies, but some are repeatedly identified. Perhaps the most obvious is cannabis’ ability to get you high.
When THC enters the brain, it floods the brain and promotes the production of dopamine. This is why it results in nearly immediate euphoric feelings, which are usually pleasant and relaxing.
One study looked at the effects of cannabis on patients with multiple sclerosis. During the study, almost all of the patients reported one very important side effect: reduced anxiety. In fact, over 85% of participants reported lower anxiety levels after smoking.
Another great benefit often associated with marijuana is its ability to interact with pain receptors in the brain. Evidence suggests that cannabis can block pain signals to help reduce mild to chronic pain, including pain associated with chronic illness. Most significantly, cannabis may be able to help the symptoms of neuropathy, or pain due to nerve damage.
Weed’s effect on brain function also has some impact on your creativity and thought patterns. When neurons fire naturally to produce endocannabinoids like anandamide, they do so very slowly. After firing, neurons have a “refractory period” where they rest to avoid overflowing the brain. Weed disturbs this refractory period and floods the brain, which leads to the explosive thoughts you get when you’re high. That’s why you may experience one incredibly exciting, but one-tracked train of thought. For some, this influx of creative thought is useful both at work and at play.
For some people, too much cannabis can have negative short term effects, like increased neural noise or feelings of paranoia. Of course, avoiding negative effects may be as easy as choosing a different strain. Each cannabis strain has a different formulation of cannabinoids. Choosing the best cannabis strain for you will help you avoid any unwanted effects.
Long Term Effects of Weed on the Brain
Of course, the short term effects may have many benefits, but that doesn’t stop researchers from wondering how cannabis affects the brain over time. However, no prominent long term effects of weed on the brain have been identified. Some researchers have suggested that cannabis may cause memory impairment, but others have debunked the idea, suggesting that cannabis may only decrease your body’s ability to create new memories in the short term. This is why you may forget where you put your car keys while you're high.
Another long term effect associated with cannabis is the possibility of forming an addiction. Of course, marijuana addiction is generally only associated with long-term chronic use. The risk is higher for people who started using cannabis in their teens but is much lower for adults who use marijuana responsibly. Plus, research shows that marijuana has no physically addictive properties, so dependency shouldn’t be much of a worry unless you have a tendency to form psychological addictions.
Probably the biggest claim about marijuana’s long-term effects is the age-old warning that “marijuana kills brain cells,” but it may not be as likely as you think. One very old study suggested that cannabis caused an IQ decline over time. However, when this study is examined closely, it’s found that there was very little control over the subject’s substance use and environment over time. Basically, it is difficult to tell if the IQ decline was due specifically to daily cannabis use, or if other substances or lifestyle factors came into play. Overall, the research doesn’t make for very compelling evidence.
Another study looked at the effects of marijuana on IQ in a set of twins. One twin used cannabis daily, while the second twin never used cannabis. The same IQ decline was found in both of the twins. The evidence is pretty inconclusive, but there is no outstanding evidence that confirms that marijuana actually kills any brain cells at all.
Weed’s Effect on Brain Function: The Conclusion
Cannabis affects the brain in many positive ways, which is why so many people are using it to control pain, anxiety, and a range of other discomforts. Much more research is needed to conclude the full effects of weed on the brain, but overall the evidence seems positive. Of course, cannabis will affect each person differently and negative side effects are possible.
If you experience negative effects from your cannabis strain, stop using it and talk to your doctor. Usually, there will be an explanation for why you are having a bad cannabis experience. Sometimes, the answer is as simple as you are consuming too much THC, which can easily incite paranoia and anxiety in anyone. Cannabis dosing can be tricky, so take care when using any cannabis product. Overall, there are many potential benefits to be reaped, and your doctor can help you find the best cannabis product for you.