You’ve read about it, maybe even experimented with, and wondered about the mysterious powers of this species of cannabis. Marijuana, weed, dope, or whatever you’d want to call it, has mind-altering effects. But how? Why? How does the most complex thing on Earth - the human brain get reconfigured when you smoke a joint? How do the billions of neurons firing away form a pattern that is altered into something that constitutes the ‘high’? You are about to find out how marijuana affects the brain and just why the most intricate structure in the Universe bends to its will.
What is marijuana?
The dried flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant, marijuana is known by several names. The greenish-grey mixture can be smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes or joints, mixed into foods, and had as edibles, or vaped.
What differentiates marijuana from other cannabis components such as hemp or CBD oil is that it contains the psychoactive component delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While many are aware that marijuana produces a high, the mechanism of this is interesting and it is not the only effect that the compound has on the mind.
The science of marijuana and the human brain is as mysterious as it gets and you are about to find out why.
The science of marijuana and the human brain
You may have heard about neurotransmitters in your science class back during your school days. A neurotransmitter is essentially how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. Messages need to be sent between the neurons for the passage of signals and chemical messengers are needed for the deed. These chemical messengers are neurotransmitters and the reason why endocannabinoids can alter the mind is that they mimic these chemicals.
These have the power to alter perception, sense of time, movement and by simply binding to the cannabinoid receptors can go on to get the body thinking this is the neurotransmitters that are acting.
Deep within the temporal lobe of the brain there lies a structure so complex it has baffled many a neuroscientist as to how a part of the brain so small in size can control the very powers of the body. The hippocampus.
Involved in attention, memories, learning, and the conceptualization of our very being, the hippocampus is affected by marijuana and this is where the cascade of effects begins. Not just this intricate part, but several other integral parts of the brain such as the cerebellum associated with balance, the basal ganglia associated with reaction time are too affected by marijuana. This causes the alteration of functions.
Why does marijuana alter pleasure centers in the brain?
If you have ever experienced any kind of a high, you will have noticed a common link. Pleasure. Happiness. Thrill. The feeling of possibility. This is what causes the addiction to opioids as they have the power to activate the brain’s reward system that is responsible for the reactions people feel to eating, sex, achievements etc. Marijuana can evoke the feeling of pleasure, by causing signals that result in the release of dopamine. The more dopamine released, the happier you feel and the more the brain needs the stimulus, causing an addiction.
Marijuana can cause impairment in brain networks
The brain is comprised of billions of neurons that branch into nerves that are connected to form intricate, complex networks and patterns and bridges and somewhere in this beautiful brilliant maze is the reason for our consciousness.
Too much marijuana can cause the networks to be disturbed. A break in the network can have a lasting impact on memory, thinking, attention and the other functions that the network contributes to.
Is psychosis something real?
Losing touch with the real world and living in a tangent reality is something everyone has experienced when high. However, if taken too much, marijuana can pose a real challenge to a person in deciphering what is real and what is not. Psychosis. A study that was conducted with a sample size of around 67,000 people found that those who used marijuana exhibited mental health conditions compared to those who did not.
Neural noise gets worse!
Increased use of marijuana increases the neural noise or the random neural activity in the brain. This would mean that a human brain that is exposed to marijuana on a constant basis begins to have disorganised thoughts, random perceptions etc.
Giving basis to this claim, senior study author Dr Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, said in a statement "At doses roughly equivalent to half or a single joint, [THC] produced psychosis-like effects and increased neural noise in humans.”
This neural noise is said to disrupt the way the brain processes information and thinks.
Munchies and the reason marijuana makes you hungry
You may have realized how hungry you seem to get after a pot session. Reason? Marijuana affects the neurons in the brain responsible for suppressing appetite. In short, every function in the body has an on the switch and an off one in the form of neurons.
There are neurons controlling your hunger. There are neurons that control your satisfaction once you are done eating. When a set of neurons is activated, the function they are responsible for happens. So in the case of hunger. There are a set of neurons responsible for suppressing hunger. These tell your stomach when it is time to stop eating. Marijuana affects these and well, you just keep feeling hungry.
Does marijuana have positive effects on the mind?
There are two sides to every coin, and while the effects of marijuana on the mind are being researched to see how it can harm it, there is also the possibility of marijuana being able to impact the mind in a way that medicines cannot. There are studies on how cannabis can sharpen the mind and even help with anxiety and depression. In another study conducted on people who suffer from schizophrenia, a mental disorder that causes one to lose touch with reality experience hallucinations, it was found the cannabis can actually help and has antipsychotic effects on the brain.
The release of dopamine and serotonin as a result of marijuana, discussed earlier in this article can be of great benefit to those experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
The benefits of marijuana are still being explored and research is on to conclusively how much is too much.