$2 million NIH grant to study cannabis use during adolescence

$2 million NIH grant to study cannabis use during adolescence
© iStock/Gwengoat

Indiana University researchers have received funding for a study on cannabis use during adolescence and its effect on brain development.

Cannabis is legal for recreational use in adults in many US states; however, the decimalisation of cannabis could initiate the younger generation to access cannabis. Neuroscientists in the IU Gill Center for Biomolecular Science recently received more than $2 million from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse to understand the effects of cannabis use during adolescence.

“This is a significant public health concern,” said Hui-Chen Lu, director of the Gill Center and a professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “Today’s cannabis strains are being bred for increased THC content. It is very different and much riskier than the more traditional strains used in the past. There is an urgent need to understand the effects of these new strains.”

Researching the effects of cannabis use during adolescence

The researchers will complement their cannabis use during adolescence study with research about CBD. Earlier work has suggested that CBD might protect from THC’s negative effects and young people may use a mixture of CBD and THC.

The researchers will use the grant to explore CBD in-depth and how it protects brain development from cannabis use during adolescence.

“Our brain is not wired precisely from the beginning,” Lu said. “To properly develop, it needs to combine inputs from our environment, our experiences and our interactions with others. In particular, a properly configured prefrontal cortex is very important for goal-directed behaviour and social interactions.”

She continued, “if cannabis disrupts prefrontal cortex development during this critical period, the impact can be huge and long-lasting. To help these individuals, we need to figure out which therapies will work best based on our understanding of what happens in the brains of young adolescents using cannabis.”

Does heavy cannabis use increase psychotic disorders?

Ken Mackie, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, noted that previous studies have illuminated that heavy use of cannabis with high THC beginning in youths aged 12 and 14 increases psychotic disorders risk from two-to five-fold.

“One of the functions of the prefrontal cortex is working memory, as well as processes like planning and impulse control,” Mackie said. “That part of the brain is still developing in adolescence, and developing brain structures are particularly vulnerable to environmental impacts, such as drug use or stress.”

The availability of edible cannabis products in the form of chocolate and cookies is attractive to young people. These could act as a gateway drug into cannabis use in adulthood.



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