Alcohol is More Harmful to Brain than Marijuana, Study Discovers

A lot of studies are now exploring the potential harms and benefits of marijuana with its legalization on the increase. However, a new study suggests alcohol is more damaging to brain health than marijuana or cannabis.

A research conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder, analyzed an existing imaging data that looked at the effects of alcohol and marijuana, or cannabis, on the brain. Their discoveries connected alcohol consumption with long-term changes to the structure of white matter and gray matter in the brain.

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From the study, the use of marijuana appeared to have no substantial long-term harmful effects on brain structure.

Research leader Rachel Thayer, of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the journal Addiction.

According to estimates, around 22.2 million people in the United States have used marijuana in the past month, making it “the most commonly used illicit drug” in the country.

Across the U.S., marijuana is increasingly becoming legalized for both medicinal and recreational purposes. As a result of this changing legislation, researchers have been trying to find out more about how marijuana may benefit health, as well as the damage that it could cause.

Researchers have discovered that cannabinoids which are the active compounds in marijuana, could help prevent migraine. A more recent study connected an increase in sex drive to marijuana use.

Which is worse between marijuana vs. alcohol?

The researchers sought to learn more about how marijuana use affects the brain. Study co-author Kent Hutchison, also of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, noted that studies that have explored this link have produced diverse results.

“When you look at these studies going back years,” he explains, “you see that one study will report that marijuana use is related to a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus. The next study then comes around, and they say that marijuana use is related to changes in the cerebellum.

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“The point is that there’s no consistency across all of these studies in terms of the actual brain structures.”

The scientists sought to bridge the gap on this discrepancy by conducting a new analysis on existing brain imaging data. They looked at how use of marijuana affects white matter and gray matter (Gray matter is the tissue on the brain’s surface that primarily consists of nerve cell bodies) in the brain, and how its effects compare with alcohol.

White matter is the deeper brain tissue that contains myelinated nerve fibers, which are branches protruding from nerve cells that transmit electrical impulses to other cells and tissues.

The team noted that any reduction in the size of white or gray matter or a loss in their integrity can lead to damages in brain functioning.

Hutchison noted that;

“With alcohol, we’ve known it’s bad for the brain for decades, but for cannabis, we know so little.”

Marijuana use had no impact

The research included the brain images of 853 adults who were aged between 18 and 55 years and 439 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18. All participants varied in their use of alcohol and marijuana.

The scientists discovered that alcohol use, particularly in adults who had been drinking for many years, was associated with a reduction in gray matter volume, as well as a reduction in the integrity of white matter.

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Conversely, marijuana use appeared to have no impact on the structure of gray or white matter in either teenagers or adults.

Based on these discoveries, the researchers believe that drinking alcohol is likely to be much more harmful to brain health than using marijuana.


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