Your Brain On Pot
We all remember Reefer Madness--the 1936 classic about the supposed evils of cannabis. Decades later, a lot of people think marijuana is pretty harmless. In fact, there's a whole movement touting the medicinal properties of the weed. But despite the long debate about the pros and cons of pot smoking, it remains far from clear how innocuous or dangerous it really is. Well, some new research might surprise a lot of people--especially the Woodstock Generation.
Murat Yucel at the University of Melbourne in Australia and his colleagues did brain scans on 15 men who were big-time pot heads, meaning they smoked at least five joints a day for more than a decade. The researchers compared them to 16 similar men who did not smoke pot.
The scans revealed some striking differences in the brains of the pot smokers, according to a paper in the June issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. A part of their brains known as the hippocampus, which regulates emotion and memory, was about 12 percent smaller on average. Their amygdalas, which is involved in fear and aggression, was about 7 percent more minuscule.
When the researchers tested the subjects' thinking and emotions, they found the pot smokers had more trouble remembering words. In fact, even though they were only pushing 40 on average, their verbal memories were more like men in their 50s and 60s. And about half of the cannabis-users reported experiencing some form of paranoia and social withdrawal, compared to only one of the non-users. The more pot the subjects smoked the more likely they were to show these signs.
The study involved men who smoked a lot of pot, and the findings may not hold true for moderate or occasional users. And there's always the chicken-and-egg question of whether the pot smoking affected the mens' brains or people with those kinds of brains were more likely to smoke pot for some reason. But with an estimated 15 million Americans smoking pot each month, and perhaps 3.4 million using it daily for a year or more, the researchers say more study is clearly needed to answer these questions.
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