Misinformation: Marijuana vs. Your Brain

A new study from the University of Texas’ Center for Brain Health and the Albuquerque-based Mind Research Network has showed that, based on MRI scans, frequent cannabis users have less grey matter in the orbital front cortex of their brains than non-users, but they also show increased connectivity in their brains. Based on the researchers’ limited scope (they did not attempt to determine if the differences are caused by marijuana use or other factors, or whether these differences negatively effected brain function), you might assume the media would approach this news with the proper nuance and restraint called for when analyzing one small study with such nebulous findings. Especially when we already have a long trail of science establishing cannabis as a proven neuroprotectant, not the least of which being Patent No. 6630507, held by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.”
“Cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants,” according to the patent, held by the same federal government that continues to block medical marijuana research, “for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.”
So, given all that, how do you think the Los Angeles Times, one of the nation’s prestige newspapers, chose to headline their story on the new study? How about: Regular Pot Smokers Have Shrunken Brains.
“Experimental mice have been telling us this for years, but pot-smoking humans didn’t want to believe it could happen to them,” the article begins in apparent glee, as if a dire warning regarding the mental health of tens of millions of Americans calls for just the right, lighthearted opening. “[The study] compared 48 ‘chronic’ marijuana users (at least four times a week over the past six months) with 62 non-using control subjects who were matched for age and gender with the using group. Subjects were an average age of 28 to 30 years old.”
To the paper’s thin credit, the Los Angeles Times piece does mention that “the authors of the study acknowledge that they cannot discern whether a pot smoker’s smaller orbital frontal cortex is the cause or the result of chronic marijuana use,” but other equally vital information remains unreported.
Writing in Alternet, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano pretty much calls bullshit.
So precisely what do these findings tell us in regard to pot use and health? Not much. Since the study design is not longitudinal, investigators cannot determine whether these differences are caused by subject’s cannabis use, whether these differences existed prior to subjects’ ever trying cannabis, or whether these differences persist when users’ cannabis consumption ceases. 
Most importantly, investigators in this study failed to determine whether any of these differences are positively associated with any measurable adverse performance outcomes, such as cognitive performance or quality of life. It may be that these cannabis users are functioning in their daily lives in a manner that is indistinguishable from controls, in which case the imaging differences may hold little if any real-world significance. (In fact, one of the paper’s authors acknowledged, “[C]hronic users appear to be doing fine.”) 
Finally, something we can all agree on: Chronic users (and users of chronic) do indeed appear to be doing just fine.
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