In recent years, conversations around cannabis as it pertains to athletes and the sports industry have amped up. Between the debates surrounding whether or not cannabis is a performance-enhancing substance and if drug testing requirements should be eased, or research showing that cannabis use can help to ease muscle recovery and assist with exercise, a new finding gives further insight on how cannabis use could help athletes.
A new study titled “The modulatory role of cannabis use in subconcussive neural injury,” published in the journal Cell, found that chronic cannabis consumption has the potential to offset the effects of repeated blows to the head. The research could be especially beneficial for professional athletes like boxers, football and soccer players, seeking to reduce the risk of long-term brain damage.
The research was sponsored by funds from the Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Research and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Another Athletic Benefit of Cannabis Use?
Athletes were at the center of the research from the start, as authors noted the increasing popularity of cannabis among athletes. The trial included 43 adult soccer players, split into a group of 24 cannabis users (at least once weekly for the past six months) and 19 non-cannabis users. The average cohort age was 20, including folks who prefer smoking, vaping or eating edibles.
Researchers embraced a controlled heading model to maintain uniform intensity, frequency and create a standardized model for the team to study. First, researchers looked at oculomotor function, when eyes adjust and coordinate during movement, of post-header soccer players. They selected a near-point of convergence (NPC), the closest point to the face before the eyes begin to see double. The non-cannabis users’ NPC moved farther away up to 72 hours after the controlled heading, but for cannabis users, NPC stopped growing after 24 hours.
Researchers also looked at S100B markers, a protein marker associated with brain damage and neurodegenerative diseases in higher concentrations. Once again, cannabis users came out on top, showing a reduced amount of S100B compared to non-cannabis participants, pointing to less risk of neurodegenerative impact.
The study also conducted Neurofilament light chain blood tests, which are meant to assess sports-related concussions, neurodegenerative diseases and neuronal damage. However, there was no significant difference between the two groups.
Promising Findings Only the Tip of the Iceberg
“Our data show that chronic cannabis use may be associated with an enhancement of oculomotor functional resiliency and suppression of the neuroinflammatory response following soccer heading,” authors concluded. “NPC has benefited from cannabis use in relation to faster recovery from 20 headings, while serum S100B level reflected the cannabis’s anti-inflammatory effects.”
Researchers admitted that the 72-hour post-heading timeframe meant they were unable to evaluate how long the elevation of NPC and S100B lasted before returning to the baseline for non-cannabis users. They also noted the lack of “ecological validity” in the study’s heading intervention, but they also argued that the study’s design was “one of the purest ways” to isolate the effects of head impacts and potential benefits of cannabis use, while limiting potential confounding factors.
While their model was more limited, researchers said, “strong group differences observed in our repeated measures design support the validity of our findings. It may be worth considering future clinical approaches focusing on randomized control trials.”
Additionally, while participants were told to refrain from other drug use, no drug toxicology tests were performed. Researchers also suggested a randomized controlled trial using standardized cannabis products and dosages. Authors also said that future research on the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis in the brain is needed moving forward.
A New, Ongoing Chapter for Cannabis in Sports
It’s possible that this, and similar, research could help to push further studies on cannabis and sports injuries, or at the very least continue the current momentum easing long standing cannabis restrictions in sports.
Earlier this year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) revealed the terms of a new deal that would remove cannabis from its banned substances list for players and allow players to promote and invest in cannabis companies.
The NBA joins other sports organizations, like the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, introducing new cannabis reforms over the past several years.