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A neuroscientist explains how marijuana affects the brain and why it's hard to quit smoking



I was an avid smoker of marijuana for almost ten years of my youth, and today I am a neuroscientist studying addiction. I loved the taste, the smell and the fabulous weed buffering effects that cut me off from the chaotic work with other people and the fulfillment of my daily commitments, as well as the promise to create something new and sparkle in the midst of the relatively unappetizing present. As an antidote to boredom, the drug made everything more interesting, and space and time were appealing rather than threatening.

Not to the point, but from the first time I smoked until the end of my last bowl, I loved the drug like a best friend. Some people make it sleepy, others paranoid (no doubt due to an unfortunate confluence of neurobiology and genetics), but for me it was almost perfect. One of my favorite moments came shortly after I realized a new day and for a moment saw the tremendous drought of life before suddenly realizing how newly married couples in bed are excited and hoping that a spouse is in bed next to them ̵

1; that I could get high. The first hits of the day consoled reliably as the gray dust of reality was blown away to reveal beauty and meaning in daily encounters.

If alcohol is a pharmacological sledgehammer and cocaine is a laser (and they are), marijuana is a bucket of red paint. This is so for at least two reasons. Firstly, the well-known ability to accentuate environmental stimuli: music is amazing, the food delicious, funny jokes, colorful colors and so on. Second, its effects are widespread. It's a five-gallon bucket and a four-inch brush, which features neural processing in all sorts of areas. Unlike cocaine, which works in relatively few places in the brain, for example, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, works throughout the brain and in every region in every single compound (of which there are trillions).

The long range of this drug was a big surprise for researchers when it was realized in the early 1990s. I was at a graduate school at the time, and the news was so significant that some people remember where they were and what they did when Kennedy was shot or the Twin Towers fell – I remember exactly where and when The THC receptor was identified throughout the brain.

Of course, we did not further develop the machinery to make these complex receptor proteins, or we used the energy to harness them for the entire brain, in case somebody hits us. The wide and dense distribution of cannabinoid receptors has profound implications. In summary, the chemicals – endocannabinoids – that trigger these receptors are a kind of exclamation point for neuronal communication. They indicate that the message being transmitted through the synapse is important.

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The purpose of the cannabinoid system is to help sort out our experiences and indicate which ones are most meaningful or most important. The system is activated in a natural way to distinguish inputs that could contribute to our blossoming – for example, a good food source, a potential partner, or other meaningful connections, information, or stimuli. Natural cannabinoids and their receptors are located throughout the brain, as this input can be made in any number of ways, depending on the exact nature of the stimulus.

Let's say that one day you are aimlessly exploring your surroundings when you happen to follow a route that eventually leads to something good. The millions of neurons involved in this discovery – including those involved in processing inputs from your senses, stimulating movement, coding memories or thoughts that connect these good things with your plans or others probably all release cannabinoids to increase the volume. This information helps to distinguish them from the other sections of your day when the interactions with the environment were not so special.

This should make it easy to understand why the stimuli to which we are stoned are so intense. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all these neural headlights. If everything is highlighted as meaningful, nothing can really stand out. What good is a watering can when the fields are flooded? After the crash, it's hard to remember what was so wonderfully needed about these experiences.

Unfortunately, chronic exposure has significant consequences. The brain adapts itself by down-regulating the cannabinoid system so that without plenty of pot on board, everything becomes boring and uninspiring. There is a long-standing debate about the relationship between cancer and smoking and whether smoking marijuana leads to an amotivation syndrome ("Amotivational" means lack of motivation). Does regular use cause you to spend many hours on the couch watching cartoons, or is it just that people who sit down and observe uninspected television also like marijuana?

Cigarette manufacturers have argued for decades that a predisposition to cancer and the tendency to inhale cigarette smoke happens to occur in the same people. In both cases reason and growing evidence point to the same thing. By down-regulating cannabinoid receptors, the user is better suited to jobs that require neither creativity nor innovation – exactly the impact that seemed to stimulate the initial exposure.

After sobering up, it took me a year to reach for a single day without a drink, but it took more than nine years for me to long to relent. For the longest time I could not go to indoor concerts, especially when I was near Pot. Good Sinsemilla would trigger a kind of mini-panic attack. During this almost ten-year-old purgatory, I separated myself from a pretty good guy (great cook, decent skier) just because he occasionally wanted to get high. Even though it was not even around me, I could not stand the thought that he was going to laugh his ass somewhere while I was completely sincere and missed the joke.

My first months without a pot were particularly miserable. Although I found myself in a new environment, with new friends and countless new experiences, I experienced everything as bland unimaginable. About three months after my new life without drugs, I walked down a street in Minneapolis and nearly fell to my knees, struck by the brilliance of the fall foliage. Around me were a million bright oranges, reds, yellows and greens; I must have felt like the first spectators of Technicolor films. Where had all this come from? In fact, the down regulation had reversed with my abstinence. As my receptors returned, my appreciation for the beauty of everyday life came to fruition.

The take away is the following: Down regulation has consequences. I have a friend and colleague, a smart professor at a good university, and a family man who liked to drink a lot, but found some of the effects embarrassing if he was not disabled. He switched to the smoke pot. He noted that if he smoked something before practicing his "fatherly duties," as he described, he was a more committed parent. With a few hits, he could play more with his children and found the ride, the preparation of meals or the team coaching not so irritating and boring.

"Great," I said. "How about your kids when you're not tall?"

"More annoying and boring," he admitted.

So, when you smoke weeds, remember that irregular and intermittent use is the only way to prevent down regulation and its unfortunate effects: tolerance, dependency and loss of interest in the unreconstructed world.

From the book NEVER ENOUGH: The Neurosciences and the Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel. Copyright © 2019 by Judith Grisel. Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


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