What Does Medical Marijuana do to Your Brain?

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What Does Medical Marijuana do to Your Brain?

We use a vast number of different substances on a regular basis that can have a profound impact on our brains and we don’t always understand the way they work. Many people are cautious around the idea of using marijuana for its therapeutic effects because we have always thought of it as a drug and in the past it has been illegal under circumstances. Nevertheless though, we seem more than happy to use caffeine to the point of becoming dependent almost and to use alcohol to excess, often damaging our brain cells and our own health severely. Meanwhile we’ll pop almost any pill we’re handed by our doctors and we will have very little idea of what they’re actually doing or how they work.

Using marijuana carries its own (relatively minor) risks and dangers, but really using it is no different from using a number of different psychoactive chemicals that we already consume on a regular basis. It is perfectly sensible to use marijuana to treat severe pain or for other therapeutic benefits, it’s just also very important that you first do the research and find out precisely what it is that you’re taking and how it has the effects that it has.

Read on then and we’ll look at precisely what marijuana does to your brain.

What is Marijuana?

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Marijuana is a specific preparation of the cannabis plant. In fact, cannabis is a genus of plant and includes several other ‘species’ including cannabis sativa, cannabis ruderalis and cannabis sativa forma indica. It goes in central and southern Asia.

It is not the cannabis plant itself though that is the point of interest so much as the specific ‘active component’ – the particular chemical that has a profound effect on the brain. In this case, that chemical is tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. This then leads to a feeling of being ‘high’ when ingested, which includes feelings of euphoria, relaxation and increased appetite among other effects. While the substance has commonly been used recreationally, it also has a number of potential medical applications which is why marijuana is sometimes grown specifically for medical use.

But what actually happens when you consume marijuana and why does it cause the effects it causes?

A Bit About the Brain

The brain is made up of neurons which are essentially brain cells. These neurons are all interconnected in what is essentially a giant web (it looks similar to a mind-map) that is technically known as a ‘connectome’. Each time you form a new memory, you will create new connections between your neurons and each time you have a new experience, this will be triggered by those neurons firing a signal.

If you zoom into the connectome incredibly closely, you will see that there are in fact tiny gaps between each neuron. This small gap is what’s known as a ‘synapse’ and in order for any two neurons to communicate the signal needs to cross that synapse. Thus the signal will consist of an action potential (a jolt of electricity) and some chemicals (neurotransmitters). It is the chemicals that contain the ’emotional intent’ in the transmission, so if there’s lots of dopamine your brain will think whatever is happening is important, whereas if there’s a lot of serotonin it will view it positively. In order to receive these signals, the end of each synapse has a series of receptors, each of which are designed to receive a specific neurotransmitter.

How Marijuana Works

Among these receptors are what are known as ‘cabinoid receptors’. These are receptors that respond to cannabinoids, which include THC – cannabis. There are particularly large cannabinoid receptor concentrations in particular parts of the brain – specifically the hippocampus, the basal ganglia and the cerebellum. The hippocampus is particularly important for short term memory (the ability to hold numbers and other things in your mind for a very short period) as well as for emotional responses. Additional areas with cannabinoid receptors to get effected include the amygdala, the brain stem, the neocortex, the spinal chord, the nucleus accumbus and hypothalamus.

When you use marijuana, those brain areas then get flooded with THC which ‘plugs’ the cannabinoid receptors and thus makes them snap into life. At the same time though, it prevents the normal communication of regular cannabinoids.

Many of the brain areas affected with marijuana involve short term memory, goal oriented behavior, appetite and emotion. It doesn’t seem to affect the brain areas responsible for pain, but essentially it is likely to alter the way that we focus, cope and deal with the pain.

Because pain has a very psychological component and requires us to pay attention to it in order to experience it, medical marijuana can actually lessen its impact by giving us a more laid back attitude, making us more easily distracted and preventing us from forming memories of pain. This is what provides the majority of the medical uses of marijuana and what makes it an interesting substance for the medical community.

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