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Cannabis, Cannabinoids & Brain Development

May 31st 2022

Cannabis, Cannabinoids & Brain Development

In legal cannabis states, the age to purchase and consume cannabis is limited to those age 21 due to how cannabis may affect brain development. However, there is a growing subsection of children, or pediatric patients, who are using cannabis or cannabinoids as a means to treat certain medical conditions.
How does cannabis affect brain development? What are the risks associated with using cannabis at a young age? Here we will examine some perspectives and research on cannabinoids and their impact on brain development.

Cannabis, The Brain, and the Endocannabinoid System in Youth

One of the biggest concerns around cannabis use in youth is the fact that the brain isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s, or more specifically around age 25. Namely the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, judgment, decision-making and personality is the last part of the brain to become fully developed.

From birth to early adulthood, the brain goes through transformation processes regarding grey and white matter; when an adolescent grows, there is a reduction of redundant grey matter and increase in white matter. As the brain continues to develop, a “pruning” process occurs where unused or redundant connections are eliminated with the goal to improve the strength of the brain synapses that are used regularly. It’s believed that the rapid loss of grey matter occurs in the medial prefrontal cortex when drugs are used.

During brain development, the prefrontal cortex – which also deals with impulse control, strategic planning, or social behavior – is left susceptible as the brain is literally going through a reconstruction as it forms its complex networks of neurophysiological processes. This may lead the brain to be damaged through substance abuse during the adolescent years, as opposed to a different response that would occur in an adult with a fully developed brain.

Similarly, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in a young person may not be fully developed to behave the same way an adult body does when exposed to cannabinoids. The ECS acts as a regulator of all bodily systems, including, but not limited to those that regulate sleep, mood, appetite, memory, and reproduction, working to bring the body into balance or homeostasis.

It’s believed exposure to cannabinoids like THC before the endocannabinoid system is fully developed may dial down cellular activity in the body, leading the ECS to fail to do its job of intuitively delivering cannabinoids to the parts in the body that need them most. In addition to this, the endocannabinoid system is important for short-term and long-term synaptic plasticity in several brain regions including those involved in appetite control, learning, and action selection, and interrupting the natural development of the ECS through pre-mature use of cannabinoids like THC may lead to an interruption in these natural processes.

Other Concerns with Cannabis Use in Youth

There are no shortage of studies that examine the role that cannabis use in adolescence plays in brain development, as well as social skills and ability to achieve later in life. However, not all studies come to the same conclusion that cannabis use in adolescence can cause problems down the line.

One study observed that in 21 adolescent-onset cannabis users, verbal learning was slower within 12 hours after use of cannabis. Other studies observe that cannabis use in adolescence, particularly in heavy users, could be related to impaired cognitive functioning, low educational attainment, and educational problems leading to socio-economic consequences such as low income or the ability to find steady employment. There is also concern that cannabis use in adolescence leads to increased likelihood of addiction to the substance.

Critics of those who say that cannabis use in adolescence can cause problems point to many factors that mitigate this statement, recognizing that there are a lot of differences between people, methodologies, and studies that will determine cannabis’ long-term effect. Most studies on the topic call for increased research so that the risk factors can be properly addressed and eliminated, especially in the instances of pediatric cannabis medicine.

Pediatric Cannabis Changes Lives

While there are many studies looking at the impact of cannabis and cannabinoids on brain development, it can’t be denied that hundreds of children across the USA have been given a second chance at leading a healthy and productive life through cannabis therapy.

One of the most well-known pediatric cannabis patients was Charlotte Figi, who passed away in 2020. Charlotte was the impetus behind creating “Charlotte’s Web” after observing the way cannabinoids significantly reduced the number of seizures she was having in a day due to Dravet’s Syndrome.

Parents of kids living with autism are also looking at cannabinoids as a method to help children with their communication skills or to reduce some of the fear-based behavioral issues. It is believed that children living with autism may have an imbalanced endocannabinoid system, particularly when it comes to the CB2 receptors. It’s believed that cannabis therapies may balance the endocannabinoid system, potentially regulating the levels of oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin acts as a chemical messenger in the brain and the organs, and while it’s mostly associated with reproduction and childbirth, it also impacts aspects of human behavior.

Explore Pediatric Cannabis Therapy with Compassionate Clinics of America

As medical professionals, it is our duty to ensure that any potential cannabinoid treatment that is recommended for our patients of Compassionate Clinics of America is safe, and doesn’t run the risk of causing harm when using it as a method of treatment for common childhood medical conditions.

When parents come to us with their children, with hopes that cannabinoid medicine may make a difference when they’re ill or living with medical or behavioral issues, we don’t just make a medical cannabis recommendation and send them on their way. We evaluate the child’s needs, understand the risk factors, and make an informed call on whether a child may be able to benefit from cannabinoid medicine without potentially harming their brains and bodies as they continue to develop.

Cannabis medicine is an individualized approach that is not “one size fits all”. When you schedule an appointment to get your medical cannabis Certification with Compassionate Clinics of America, your individual needs and desired outcomes are discussed and assessed.

If you’re interested in exploring medical cannabis in Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, or Oklahoma, be sure to stay tuned to our blog as we continue to release more educational information to help patients maximize their cannabis medicine experience.

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