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The Science Behind Marijuana and Neurogenesis
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Contrary to popular belief, research continues to show that marijuana does not kill brain cells.

In fact, recent studies shine a more positive light on the effects of marijuana on the brain, suggesting that it might actually increase the number of cells in your brain – a process known as neurogenesis.

What is Neurogenesis?

For a long time, it was believed that your brain cells would stop growing past a certain age. However, research now shows that the brain continues to produce new neurons throughout adulthood, specifically in an area known as the hippocampus.

The hippocampus plays a role in memory, learning and spatial orientation and is believed to be capable of producing over 5000 new cells each day.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The process of forming new neurons – known as neurogenesis – is thought to improve functions of the brain such as learning and memory. Furthermore, studies have linked anxiety and depression disorders to decreased neurogenesis.

Although neurogenesis is an ongoing process, the intensity of neurogenesis declines as you age. Studies also show that regular use of opiates, alcohol, nicotine and cocaine can inhibit the process of neurogenesis.

How Can Marijuana Help?

Scientific research has found the endocannabinoid system to play a major role in neurogenesis. In fact, experts believe that the endocannabinoid system facilitates the process of neurogenesis throughout the entire human life span, from embryonic development to late adulthood.

Interestingly, cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of symptoms associated with brain ageing, including the decline in neurogenesis. As well, studies show that cannabinoids can still promote neurogenesis even after brain cells are damaged.

Researchers have studied the effects of cannabinoids on neurogenesis by using synthetic versions of THC – the most common cannabinoid in medical marijuana. In particular, a study led by Canadian researcher Dr. Xia Zhang found that synthetic THC could not only promote neurogenesis in laboratory animals, but also seemed to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression – confirming the link between neurogenesis and mood disorders. CBD – another cannabinoid found in marijuana – has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to increase neurogenesis in studies.

“Most ‘drugs of abuse’ suppress neurogenesis. Only marijuana promotes neurogenesis.” – Dr. Xia Zhang

Oddly enough, cannabinoids that are naturally produced by the human body (endocannabinoids) seem to have an opposite effect of brain cell formation. A study published in 2002 found that the endocannabinoid anandamide could inhibit adult neurogenesis. Experts believe that this may be a result of the different ways that endocannabinoids and plant-derived cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors.

What This Means For Your Health

Although marijuana seems to possess the unique ability of increasing the growth of brain cells, whether neurogenesis can improve your overall intelligence has yet to be investigated by modern research. On the other hand, neurogenesis is believed to improve aspects of memory and learning, which one might assume could have a positive effect on your IQ score.

Furthermore, the results of Dr. Zhang’s aforementioned study seem to suggest that medical marijuana may indeed be an effective treatment for patients who suffer from anxiety and depression.

But while studies demonstrate that the compounds found in marijuana can increase the formation of new brain cells, it is important to note that studies have yet to be conducted using actual marijuana. Therefore, it is impossible to say for certain whether marijuana use can in fact improve memory, learning and symptoms of mood disorders.

On the other hand, out of all the most common recreational substances, marijuana seems to be the only one that has a positive impact on the growth of brain cells. Once again, scientific evidence suggests that marijuana may be better for your health than many other drugs of today’s society.