The University of California Irvine has received a $9 million grant to research the effects of long-term cannabis use on the adolescent brain. The grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will fund a four-year study at the UCI School of Medicine.
New Cannabis Research Group to Conduct Study
The research will study the effects of THC, including potential “persistent changes in endocannabinoid (ECB) signaling, synaptic plasticity, and behavior,” on young brains, according to media reports.
The endocannabinoid system uses molecules produced by the body that help regulate various functions of the mind and body. The cannabinoids from cannabis, known as phytocannabinoids, can also have an effect on the same physiological and psychological processes.
The research will be conducted by the new UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis, which was founded at the university last year. The center is a partnership between the law and medical schools at UCI and will study the pharmacological and physiological effects of cannabis in addition to its legal, social, and economic issues.
With research funded by the NIDA grant, the center hopes to learn the long-term effects of THC exposure during adolescence on behavior and brain function, as well as the chemical processes behind those effects.
Daniele Piomelli, Ph.D., is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the UCI School of Medicine and the director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis. He said the grant will help researchers gain a better understanding of the effects of cannabis on young people.
“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,” Piomelli explained.
Young People at Risk
“Studies suggest that adolescents who are exposed to cannabis are at risk for development of various neuropsychiatric disorders later in life, but there is much research still needed,” said Piomelli. “It is especially important to understand at what times in life and at what dosages cannabis may become dangerous, and to develop preventive and therapeutic strategies to manage this risk.”
Cannabis use often begins in the early teens and increases as young people get older. According to a 2013 survey sponsored by NIDA, 11.7 percent of eighth-graders and 35.1 percent of high school seniors have used cannabis at least once in their lives. Researchers expect these figures to increase as the stigma of pot and the perception of its risks lessen.
Because of the potential for long-term harm, including physiological change, that cannabis may pose to young brains, Piomelli said that more research into the beneficial and negative effects of cannabis is necessary.
“This grant will allow us to take great strides toward gaining a solid understanding of the true benefits and dangers of cannabis and may lead to better ways to prevent cannabis dependence,” Piomelli said. “It may also guide solid, evidence-based public policy decisions concerning medicinal and recreational uses of cannabis, as well as inform the development of medications aimed at treating harmful diseases.”