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New Study Will Gauge Pot's Effect on Teenage Brains

Researchers at UC Irvine receive $9 million to better understand how cannabis impacts young people.

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Most agree that cannabis has an impact on those who start using it in their teenage years. But the exact nature and extent of that impact remains a subject of debate.

Aaron Tilley | Getty Images

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine hopes to answer some of these questions by focusing on the effect of marijuana specifically on the teenage brain.

In addition, researchers will investigate the underlying molecular activity that cannabis causes in the brain.

The study has the potential to both offer medical insights into the use of cannabis and to influence public policy. At the very least, it will be the first time in the U.S. that such an extensive study has been completed.

Related: Canada Makes Marijuana Farmers Eligible for Government Agriculture Programs

Cannabis and the Brain

The research is being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Together, they have awarded the UC-Irvine School of Medicine $9 million over four years to conduct the research.

The stated goal is to measure the “long-term impact of cannabis exposure on the adolescent brain,” according to a news release from UC-Irvine. The research will focus on how THC, the active ingredient in marijuana related to the “high” feeling, affects endocannabinoid (ECB) signaling in the brain, as well as synaptic plasticity and behavior.

But the scientific benefits of this study are not the only potential positive outcome. Researchers hope that the results may give policymakers -- and voters -- a scientific basis for making more informed decisions about the legalization of marijuana, which is still banned on a federal level. 

Related: The Cannabis Industry Is Going Global Without Waiting for America to Legalize

The Role of EBC

The study will also examine the interaction between marijuana an EBC, molecules in the brain that govern such areas as emotions, learning, and memory. The NIH sponsored a previous study that found a connection between EBC activation, a lack of sleep, and obesity rates.

In the news release from UC-Irvine, Daniele Piomelli, a doctor, and professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the school said: “The ECB system is the main point of entry of THC into the brain.

“Now that cannabis is legal in many states, it’s very important to understand whether excessive activation of this signaling system during adolescence can produce alterations in cognition and motivated behavior that last into adulthood."

Previous studies have indicated an increase in the amount of marijuana used in the U.S. in the past decade, as well as the number of people who have associated “disorders” involving abuse of cannabis.

By understanding the molecular activity generated by pot, UC-Irvine researchers hope to get closer to understanding how marijuana interacts with the brain. That could open the door to methods for helping those with marijuana-related issues, as well as provide a better understanding on just how cannabis impacts thinking and behavior.

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