Article written by
Tina MagrabiSenior Content Writer
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
Today, we’re looking at how cannabis affects the brain and brain function. In the 2001 film How High, the characters Silas (Method Man) and Jamal (Redman) use a magical cannabis strain that allows them to ace their college entrance exam. As farcical as it may seem, they may have been onto something. Research has shown that cannabis may indeed boost brain cell growth.
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How Cannabis Affects the Brain
The brain is extremely complex, and figuring out how cannabis affects it precisely is challenging. The cannabis plant contains up to 20 flavonoids, 150 cannabinoids and over 200 terpenes, all with different effects at different dosages.
Moreover, age also makes a difference in how cannabis affects the brain. Non-medical use of THC during one’s teenage years and early twenties can impair learning and memory, but small amounts of THC during one’s geriatric years may have the opposite effect!
In fact, both CBD and THC may be useful as a neuroprotective after suffering a stroke. Furthermore, cannabis may help treat or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, cannabis may act as a nootropic – a substance that improves cognitive functions like memory and creativity.
How Does Cannabis Affect Us as We Age?
Like all of the body’s systems, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) changes as we age. During our youth, the ECS is very active. As we age, our ECS slows down and endocannabinoid activity declines. A little THC could therefore replace and restore endocannabinoids to optimum levels while helping regulate crucial functions like memory and immunity. The key seems to be not to over-or under-stimulate the ECS.
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Using CBD and THC after a Stroke
CBD and THC in tandem may offer several benefits to individuals recovering from a stroke. Here are some benefits of CBD and THC:
- THC and CBD could form a sort of “protective layer” around cells in the brain’s arteries, which could decrease infarction (obstruction of blood vessels).
- CBD may increase blood flow to the brain via the serotonin receptor 5HT1A, making CBD a potential neuroprotective.
- Both CBD and THC may prevent dangerous amounts of glutamate (a key neurotransmitter) from forming in the brain, and act as an anti-neuroinflammatory. Excessive levels of glutamate can lead to symptoms like anxiety, while glutamate deficiencies may lower energy levels.
These aspects make cannabinoids a potential therapy for not only stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI), but also multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/motor neurone disease (ALS/MND). Many of these conditions are associated with age, and all of them are linked to neuroinflammation.
CBD and the Growth of Brain Cells in Older Adults
The human brain degenerates as we age, and brain cells are depleted. This loss of brain cells leads to conditions like Alzheimer’s, which can progress to dementia. Brain cells contain cannabinoid receptors, so maintaining an optimum level of cannabinoids in the body can help keep brain cells alive or even generate new cannabinoid receptors to “soak up” all the extra cannabinoids. This is why cannabinoids like CBD are said to promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells.
Cannabis and Changes in the Brain
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout an individual’s life, such as how synapses strengthen and weaken over time. Cannabinoids play a function in learning, memory and plasticity, and CB1 receptor antagonists may actually increase neural plasticity. This means that it is possible to use cannabinoids like CBD and small amounts of tetrahydrocannabivarin, as well as terpenes like pinene, to tame the negative effects of THC, while still channeling some of THC’s benefits.
How Can Cannabinoids Improve Brain Function?
First, it is important to realize that scant scientific research exists on cannabis, and most studies have been performed on mice, not humans. Also, we need to exercise prudence before claiming that any medication is a preventative, especially with regard to something as variable as aging.
That said, there are studies showing that low doses of some central nervous system (CNS) stimulants enhance cognition in healthy people. However, overstimulation of the CNS can cause cognitive deficits.
The above can also apply to cannabinoids. Moreover, cannabinoids are more well-tolerated than many medications, even innocuous ones like ibuprofen. While it is possible that taking too much THC may cause cognitive deficits (especially in young people), unlike many CNS stimulants, overdose on cannabinoids alone will not be fatal.
Here are some ways you can use cannabinoids to enhance your brain functions:
- Tap into the power of THC. A small amount of THC may be cognitively beneficial to middle-aged or older adults, but adolescents and young adults may do better to steer clear.
- Utilize the entourage effect to your benefit – pinene, CBD and small doses of THCV may buffer against the negative effects of THC. Terpenes like beta-caryophyllene (found in black pepper) can also potentially multiply
- THC’s and CBD’s stress-busting, pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects.
- Treat nausea or post-exercise inflammation with a small amount of THC, along with CBD and other cannabinoids and terpenes (e.g., limonene, linalool).
- Keep your mind and body active – a good diet, exercise, playing an instrument, learning new skills (e.g., drawing, dancing), and playing board games can all help slow cell aging. Slight euphoria from cannabinoids may even help you enjoy these activities more!
- Different methods of ingestion may be best to take advantage of cannabinoids’ possible nootropic effects – tinctures and microdosing with high-quality vaporizers may be best.
- Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the acidic precursor to THC, and is non-psychoactive. THCA may also have anti-inflammatory properties, and could be useful, especially for younger people. However, as THCA does not bind to either CB1 or CB2 receptors, it may actually be a small amount of THC that is doing the work!
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