It has long been known that schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder caused by an imbalance in the brain’s chemical reactions, has genetic roots. Now, a new study suggests that the chronic mental condition may be precipitated by environmental factors such as cannabis use. According to the study, smoking pot or using cannabis in other ways during adolescence may serve as a catalyst for schizophrenia among people susceptible to the disorder.
For the research published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics on April 11, 2017, mice were exposed to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. The categories of mice used in the study included genetically susceptible and not exposed to cannabis, genetically susceptible and exposed to cannabis, genetically intact and exposed to cannabis and genetically intact and not exposed to cannabis.
Researchers observed that during the time period similar to that of human adolescence, the mice were found to be at higher risk of brain defects associated with the onset of schizophrenia. However, the researchers noted that only the genetically susceptible mice developed behavioral and biochemical brain causes and effects related to schizophrenia.
The study was jointly conducted by scientists from the Tel Aviv University (TAU), the Geha Psychiatric Hospital, Israel, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore (U.S.). “The study was conducted on mice but it mimics a clinical picture of ‘first episode’ schizophrenia, which presents during adolescence in proximity to robust cannabis use,” said Dr. Ran Barzilay of TAU, who led the study.
Researchers find protective mechanism against cannabis’ effects
In addition to discovering the effects caused by cannabis in the genetically susceptible mice, the researchers also found the mechanism through which the gene and marijuana interacted to produce the desired effects. According to Professor Daniel Offen of TAU, one of the researchers, the study highlighted the protective mechanism in the non-susceptible mice.
As per the authors, while healthy mice could increase the production of a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to neutralize effects of THC, in the mice with defective genes, the levels of BDNF remained the same. They pointed out that artificial delivery of BDNF into the brain’s hippocampus of the genetically susceptible mice could protect them from the damaging effect of THC during adolescence.
“The novel protective mechanism identified in the study may serve as a basis for the future development of compounds capable of attenuating the deleterious effect of cannabis on brain development. However, until that time, it is important that young people at risk for psychiatric disorders (i.e., have psychiatric disorders in their family or have reacted strongly to drugs in the past) should be particularly cautious with cannabis use during adolescence,” said Offen.
Help at hand
There are significant detrimental effects associated with marijuana abuse. Being a long-acting drug, cannabis is known to stay in the system for a longer period of time exposing the individual to several health hazards. Research shows that use of marijuana over a period of time can cause short-term memory loss and chronic smoking can damage the respiratory tract.
Several studies have associated cannabis use with increased risk for mental health disorders, including schizophrenia, depression and substance use disorders. Studies also suggest that smoking marijuana on a regular basis can induce changes in density and volume of the amygdala and nucleus accumbens. The psychoactive properties of its primary ingredient – THC — reduces the volume of gray matter that controls motivation, emotions and reward.
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