“It’s just marijuana!”
I can’t tell you how many times I hear this in my work with individuals and families. Many go on to defend using marijuana as safer, less harmful to self and others, than drinking alcohol. Of course the legalization of prescription marijuana confuses the issue because people think that makes it “safe.” As with all prescribed medications, if taken as prescribed, it can be safe (assuming there are no other complicating factors). The point of this post, however, is to address those who proclaim, “It’s just marijuana.” Like all drugs of addiction and alcohol, which I’ll refer to as “drugs” going forward, marijuana changes the way the brain works. To better understand, let me first explain neural networks.
Neural networks are the brain and body’s communication system. Basically it’s one cell talking to another cell. Neural networks in the brain control everything we think, feel, say and do via their talking to one another and to and from others in the body via the nervous system.
A few basics of a neural network describe in the above illustration, include:
- Brain cells – neurons in the brain.
- Branchlike extensions – carry the outgoing electrical signal (called an axon when it’s outgoing) or the incoming electrical signal (called a dendrite when it’s incoming).
- Synapses – the gap between branchlike extensions.
- Neurotransmitters – the chemical messenger that is triggered at the end of one brain cell’s branchlike extension (axon) that converts the electrical signaling into “something” that can float across the synapse.
- Receptors - located on the receiving branchlike extension (axon) to accept the neurotransmitter. The neurotransmitters lock into these receptors like keys in a door lock. The receptors convert the message/signal back to an electrical signal that shoots up to the incoming branchlike extension on the receiving cell (neuron). That cell decides whether to continue or stop the messaging.
Each type of neurotransmitter has its own type of receptor and visa versa. Some of the commonly known neurotransmitters are dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Having all components in a neural network healthy is what helps with the brain and body’s smooth, efficient communication system. Think of it as string after string of holiday lights. Pull out one – just a smidge – and the whole strand malfunctions.
What Drugs Do to Neural Networks
Drugs are chemicals and they all reach the brain via the bloodstream. This entry can be through the lungs if smoked, directly into the bloodstream if injected, or through the small intestine, as with alcohol, for example.
Once in the brain, the drug chemicals tap into the brain’s neural network communication system and interrupt how neurons normally send, receive and process information. Take Marijuana for example.
In the case of marijuana, its main active ingredient is THC. THC binds to specific sites called cannabinoid receptors (CBRs). These receptors are found in high-density in areas of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception.
When someone smokes marijuana, THC stimulates the CBRs artificially. An overstimulation of these receptors in key brain areas produces the marijuana “high,” as well as other effects on mental processes. Over time, this overstimulation can alter the function of CBRs, which, along with other changes in the brain, can lead to addiction and to withdrawal symptoms when drug use stops. NIDA’s “How Does Marijuana Produce Its Effects.”
It doesn’t matter what the drug is – even if it’s just marijuana. There is an impact in the brain. To find out the specifics of individual drugs, check out NIDA for Teens: Facts on Drugs.
And check out NIDA’s Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction for even more information on the science that explains how drugs – regardless of the kind – change the brain. You may also be interested to read about marijuana’s effect on a person’s ability to drive safely.