Marijuana: Not as Bad For the Teenage Brain as You Think?

'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze'

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Cannabis has numerous benefits, and medical science has only begun to scratch the surface as its use and study becomes more and more widespread and mainstream. It’s used to treat different forms of cancer, for example, and there are many incredibly successful people who have cited using it to spur their creativity, relax, and even help them be more productive. The economic benefits are fairly substantial as well.

But one of the biggest concerns surrounding marijuana – particularly marijuana use by teenagers and younger Americans – is that studies have linked it to potential issues with cognitive development. Growing brains and developing minds, it was thought, are in need of nurturing, and cannabis was actually gumming up the process, so to speak.

There’s genuine cause for concern among parents when it comes to substance use, but new research is showing that those studies may have been off the mark. Unfortunately, though marijuana isn’t revealed as a culprit, there are still some reasons to worry.

The research, released by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says though marijuana use by teens has been tied to lower IQ scores, marijuana itself is not the catalyst in driving those scores down – it’s merely a symptom of another issue.

“Marijuana is one of the most commonly used drugs in the United States, and use during adolescence—when the brain is still developing—has been proposed as a cause of poorer neurocognitive outcome,” the study says. “Nonetheless, research on this topic is scarce and often shows conflicting results, with some studies showing detrimental effects of marijuana use on cognitive functioning and others showing no significant long-term effects.”

The researchers, from UCLA, USC, the University of Pennsylvania, and others, say that their work doesn’t show a cause-effect relationship between cannabis use and lower cognitive ability.

“There was no evidence of a dose–response relationship between frequency of use and intelligence quotient (IQ) change. Furthermore, marijuana-using twins failed to show significantly greater IQ decline relative to their abstinent siblings. Evidence from these two samples suggests that observed declines in measured IQ may not be a direct result of marijuana exposure but rather attributable to familial factors that underlie both marijuana initiation and low intellectual attainment.”

These findings seemingly contradict previous research, as mentioned, which have tried to explain the relationship between marijuana and teen IQ scores. That research, also published by the PNAS, tied cannabis use to a potential 5% drop in cognitive ability, as measured by IQ scores. That study, as it turns out, may have incorrectly pointed at cannabis as the primary factor that drove scores down, when in fact, it looks like underlying factors are the real cause.

As for what those factors are? A report from the Associated Press says that the researchers aren’t exactly sure, citing one of the study’s authors. It could be environmental, genetic, or any combination of other things.

Basically, this new study is saying that these teenagers were going to see cognitive decline whether they were engaging in marijuana use or not – there’s something else at play. That’s not to say that there aren’t other potential harmful effects that can be caused by cannabis, necessarily, just that the preceding research wasn’t entirely on-point. It’s important to keep in mind that there is a lot more research to be done, however.

What this does mean for parents, though, is that marijuana might deserve a lower level of concern in comparison to other substances. In America, it’s often assumed that teens are going to engage in drinking or smoking – but it’s often shrugged off as inevitable. Those are both drastically more dangerous than marijuana use, and yet they’re taken less seriously in many households. It’s likely because marijuana is still federally illegal, and the potential legal fallout is much more damning. Even so, the science is telling us that we should reconsider our concerns.

Teens are probably more likely to ingest marijuana and play video games or watch cartoons, for example, than get behind the wheel, or tag an overpass.

And in states where marijuana is more readily available (due to legalization, or proliferation of dispensaries, for example), teen use is actually dropping. Interestingly enough, just having certain substances available to teens doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to partake. That may further bolster the evidence that teens who do or want to use marijuana are struggling with some underlying issues; though not all of them.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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