Marijuana use may be easier on the brain than alcohol

Technology is not able to ascertain the risks of marijuana on the brain as it can alcohol, but it may not be any safer, scientists say.
By Susan Konig | Sep 14, 2018
With marijuana now legal in a number of states, scientists are comparing its effects with those of alcohol use in an attempt to see how each substance affects overall health. Research released in December 2017 explores how both drinking and smoking pot affect the brain.

The study, which was published in the journal Addiction, analyzed data for 853 adults and 439 teens who reported using alcohol or pot. When examining neuroimaging data, the researchers discovered that people who used alcohol had long-term changes to the structure of white matter and gray matter in their brains. The more alcohol they consumed, the bigger the changes. "Alcohol-use severity is associated with widespread lower gray matter volume and white matter integrity in adults," the researchers concluded in the study. One however, exception, was teenagers. Researchers did not find significant changes in white matter volume in teens who used alcohol.

"The white matter of your brain carries nerve impulses between neurons and allows you to think fast, walk straight, and keep from falling," says Clifford Segil, a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Gray matter plays a role in seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control., he says. When these areas lose volume, it "basically can cause people to be slow," Segil says.

But the study's findings didn't conclude that pot was any safer. The problem: scientists don't have the technology to see exacly how it impacts brain chemistry. "Even though the structure looks abnormal with alcohol use, the expectation is that the chemistry is being altered equally with both [alcohol and marijuana]," Segil says. "Brain function is definitely not normal with both, and the expectation is that both are going to hurt you in the long run."

The findings don't mean that people need to avoid alcohol altogether. Instead, it's important to make sure your use is kept within moderate limits, which theU.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americansdefines as having up to onedrinka day for women and up to twodrinksa day for men. "Everything in moderation," Segil says.

Neither alcohol nor marijuana is good for your brain. Both can mess with your memory and function when you're using them," says Amit Sachdev, a neurologist and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University. "Nearly every toxin that affects the brain requires some degree of chronic use andresearchhas found that large amounts of alcohol can make it difficult for the brain to form memories, while heavy marijuana users can have difficulty with mental functioning for up to a month after they stop using the drug."

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