Long-Term Weed Use Could Mess With the “Reward” Parts of Your Brain

A new study suggests that chronic (pun intended) weed use may mess with your brain's reward system.

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Nearly everyone in the country agrees that marijuana, at least for medical use, should be entirely legal. But what does marijuana do to the brain?

For those of us who actually use it, the brain is an endlessly fascinating and undeniably dope organ. The brain is responsible for pretty much every single thing you could ever dream of accomplishing, including—first and foremost—feeling good. Not just kind of good, but also really fucking good. As part of this process of feeling good, the brain utilizes natural reward processes that are sparked by equally natural reward cues.

A new study from the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas claims that chronic marijuana use may "disrupt" this process, with long-term consumers apparently displaying "more brain activity" in the intimidatingly named mesocorticolimbic-reward system. Researchers studied 59 weed-using adults and 70 presumably boring AF non-users, asking each participant to rate their urge to partake in weed-related activities when presented with various images, also called cues:

Study participants rated their urge to use marijuana after looking at various visual cannabis cues, such as a pipe, bong, joint or blunt, and self-selected images of preferred fruit, such as a banana, an apple, grapes or an orange.

"This study shows that marijuana disrupts the natural reward circuitry of the brain, making marijuana highly salient to those who use it heavily," Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, said in a press release. "In essence, these brain alterations could be a marker of transition from recreational marijuana use to problematic use."

When participants were presented with weed-related cues instead of fruit, those who self-described as frequent marijuana users showed "enhanced response" in the brain's reward regions. "We found that this disruption of the reward system correlates with the number of problems, such as family issues, individuals have because of their marijuana use," Filbey said of the study, published this week in Human Brain Mapping. "Continued marijuana use despite these problems is an indicator of marijuana dependence."

However, according to prominent marijuana advocacy groups (and even other studies), fans of cannabis use—recreational or otherwise—shouldn't jump to conclusions after reading these findings. "This seems at least somewhat overblown," Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, told Complex Wednesday. "But even if you think marijuana is dangerous, you have to acknowledge that keeping it illegal only increases all possible harms. Drug cartels and gangs on the black market don't test and label their products for potency and purity. As a result, consumers generally have no idea what they're actually putting into their bodies."

Furthermore, a 2015 study showed that weed is, in fact, 114 times safer than alcohol. Alcohol, as your consistently inebriated roommate can attest, is very legal and relatively strictly regulated. So what gives?

If the Drug Enforcement Administration delivers the good news regarding rescheduling some are expecting later this month, the number of studies performed annually on marijuana's impact on the brain, the body, and everything in between will see a drastic increase. Isn't that something we should all be able to agree on?

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