Brain and Body

Study Finds “Skunk” Cannabis Damages White Brain Matter, Induces Psychosis

December 1, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

young woman smoking pot or marijuana. Lighter
Photo credit: Chuck Grimmett/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stoners, take heed.

In the first study of its kind, researchers from King’s College London and Sapienza University of Rome collaborated to study the effect of cannabis potency on the brain. The findings don’t yield good news for stoners around the world who have been rolling up joints of “skunk” cannabis sold on the streets — the high-potency marijuana can significantly damage the brain’s white matter and induce psychosis, a mental disorder characterized by a disconnection from reality.

Studying the effects of highly-potent cannabis is particularly important in this day and age since modern “skunk” weed contains higher proportions of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) than marijuana products did around a decade ago. In fact, “skunk-like” cannabis products are thought to be the most commonly smoked form of marijuana in the UK — it’s actually virtually impossible to buy any other type of weed, according to The Spectator.  

To explore the impact of cannabis potency in inducing psychosis, the researchers looked at the white matter of 99 study participants — 56 of which had reported a first psychotic episode — using an fMRI technique. The findings showed that white matter damage was significantly greater among volunteers who used high-potency cannabis as opposed to those who were occasional smokers or low-potency users.

SEE ALSO: Smoking Weed May Help Treat Eating Disorders

“We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibers in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not,” Dr. Paola Dazzan, senior study researcher at King’s College London, said in a press release. “This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

Basically, smoking skunk can indeed induce symptoms of psychosis, but the potent pot will lead to white matter brain damage either way. What makes white matter so important anyway? It’s a vast system of neural connections that connects the grey matter in different regions of the brain, enabling fast communication. In the past, researchers have overlooked white matter, but recent studies find it contributes to psychiatric disorders, cognitive function, learning, and IQ.

The researchers specifically studied the corpus callosum, the largest white matter structure in the brain that’s responsible for communication between the left and right hemispheres.

As explained by the Dana Foundation, an organization committed to advancing brain research, “Without functioning white matter, the brain could be like a group of people in proximity to each other but unable to communicate with each other.” So it’s safe to say that we need our white matter.

“When assessing cannabis use it is extremely important to gather information on how often and what type of cannabis is being used,” said Dr. Dazzan. “These details can help quantify the risk of mental health problems and increase awareness on the type of damage these substances can do to the brain.”

Considering that genetic analyses of marijuana has found little evidence of distinct strains, it’s hard to truly be certain of what you’re buying when it comes to unregulated, illegal weed. While medicinal marijuana has proven to provide a number of health benefits, it’s best to stay skeptical of the “skunk” cannabis that’s available on the street.

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