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How Does Marijuana Affect the Teen Brain?

Teen smoking marijuana, unaware of how it may impact their brain development

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana use among young adults reached an all-time high during the pandemic. The National Library of Medicine reports marijuana as the “second most widely used intoxicant” by US teens.

Recent changes in state and federal marijuana laws have altered the public perception of marijuana use, and the patterns of teen marijuana abuse are also shifting. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 37% of US teens surveyed in 2019 have used marijuana. The same study reported that at least 20% of the adolescent cannabis users surveyed reported marijuana use within the past 30 days.

According to the CDC, the teenage brain isn’t finished growing until around the age of 25. It is critical for parents to understand the effects that short-term and long-term cannabis use can have on teen brain development. Read on to learn more about how marijuana affects the teenage brain and how to detect if your teen is using or abusing weed.

Marijuana Basics for Parents

Legal and illegal manufacturers and distributors make marijuana products from the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. Marijuana and marijuana extracts can be smoked, ingested, or vaped for medicinal recreational use.

The chemicals in marijuana act on the endocannabinoid system in the body, producing a temporary psychoactive effect. THC is one of the primary psychoactive ingredients in cannabis that can bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, causing a “high.”

Other names for marijuana include:

  • Weed
  • Bud
  • Flower
  • Kush
  • Pot

What is Cannabis Use Disorder?

Adolescent exposure and cognitive tests show that one effect of impaired brain functioning can produce mind-altering effects that result in the development of a cannabis use disorder in adolescent cannabis users compared to non-users.

When they studied the effects of cannabis on the brain in persistent cannabis users, research suggests that the prefrontal cortex and different brain regions in adolescent rats showed slight alterations.

How Does Marijuana Affect the Teenage Brain?

There are several ways that marijuana can affect a teen’s brain. For example, THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, can increase levels of anxiety and stress hormones such as cortisol in the body. Research shows marijuana use during adolescence has negative mental health effects, including increased rates of anxiety and depression. This stress response may lead to an overall decrease in emotional stability and have an impact on school performance and social interactions.

THC has also been shown to increase levels of dopamine, which regulates emotional responses. An overactive dopamine response can lead to increased cravings for marijuana, drug-seeking behaviors, and an increased risk of addiction later in life.

THC impairs memory, as well as reduces motivation and focus. Long-term cannabis exposure has been associated with a decrease in white matter density within the brains of adolescents, which can lead to problems with coordination and balance–both important skills that are developing during the teenage years.

Teen marijuana use can have harmful effects on cognitive function, academic performance, and mental health. Research suggests that consuming marijuana before the brain is fully mature can have lasting impacts well beyond young adulthood.

Cognitive Development – Research on adolescent and adult findings shows that adolescent cannabis exposure can cause negative effects on adolescent brain development that can carry over into adulthood. The most common way marijuana affects young brains is by altering how their developing brains process information and emotions. Cognitive decline can also manifest as a struggle to learn new information.

Academic Performance – Persistent cannabis dependence in young people and adolescent users not only results in substance abuse, but chronic cannabis users and young people often suffer from poor school performance when memory and concentration are affected by recreational marijuana use in early adolescence.

Emotional Regulation – Cannabis use, specifically the THC inside the marijuana plant, is one chemical that researchers have linked to changes in how nerve cells communicate with each other in adolescent cannabis use. The same research group showed that these changes can make it significantly harder for teenagers to think clearly, make good decisions, and regulate their emotions.

Marijuana may also have a negative impact on brain chemistry in other parts of the teenager’s brain. Heavy marijuana use can contribute to neuropsychological decline and lead to changes in how dopamine and serotonin behave in adolescents being tested. These substances are essential for regulating each brain region that controls mood, pleasure, motivation, memory loss, and sleep.

Weed and illicit drug use can contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders like mood disorders and other forms of mental illness in early adulthood. Young cannabis users and frequent cannabis users can struggle with psychosis and cognitive impairment as one of the lasting effects of early marijuana use.

Is My Teenager Using or Abusing Marijuana?

It’s difficult to figure out if your teenager is suffering from issues related to teen mental health, going through normal teenage growing pains, or if they are using or abusing substances like marijuana. Parents may often be able to tell if their teen is consuming marijuana based on what they do or say.

Below are some questions for parents to consider when trying to figure out if their teen is engaging in recreational cannabis use.

  1. Are there unexplained changes in their mood or behavior?
  2. Is there a decline in their academic performance?
  3. Do they have any unexplained burns or injuries?
  4. Are they not interested in activities that used to excite them?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child may be using or abusing cannabis.

It’s important to have open communication with your teens about their reasons for marijuana use and explain the potentially negative side effects that can occur in teens while their brain is still going through important stages of cognitive development.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Marijuana

Be honest with your child about your concerns with their cannabis use. Don’t be afraid to share information about drug abuse and the developing brain. Tell them the statistics on adolescent marijuana users, and how THC interacts with the human brain.

If you struggling to communicate with your child about their early onset of drug use, a licensed mental health professional can act as a neutral third party between parents and teens. They can facilitate a bridge of communication in families that helps both sides to hear and to be heard. They can also help parents and teens uncover what is driving the need for marijuana use and replace those unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier and more adaptable ones.

Teens who are struggling with mental health issues that lead them to marijuana use can learn to understand their emotions and find healthier ways of coping with the help of a licensed therapist.

Underlying Mental Health Problems

Many times, early-onset cannabis users are abusing marijuana to alleviate mental anguish. Adolescence can be a difficult time for everyone and today’s teens have it even harder. With the advent of social media, global pandemics, and climate collapse looming, teens are resorting to drugs and alcohol at an earlier age to help them feel better or seek escape. Young users of marijuana may also be dealing with depression, anxiety, OCD, or other mental illnesses.

If you think that your teen is using marijuana because of an underlying mental health issue, reach out to Clear Recovery Center Teen Mental Health Program today at 866.522.2084.