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Understanding marijuana’s risks to the brain, from the Harvard Mental Health Letter

As a treatment for physical ailments, marijuana has been shown to be effective at relieving pain, stimulating the appetite, and controlling cancer-related nausea and vomiting. These uses underlie the movement to legalize marijuana for medical use in the United States. As a treatment for psychiatric disorders, though, the risks of marijuana use exceed the benefits, reports the April 2010 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Regular use of marijuana can lead to addiction and other mental health problems, especially in people who are genetically vulnerable, notes Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Addiction. The concentration of THC (the herb’s psychoactive component) in marijuana has been increasing in recent years. Addiction specialists are concerned that this increased potency might accelerate development of dependence.

Anxiety. At low doses, THC can be sedating. At higher doses, it can induce intense anxiety. Although some people find that marijuana calms them down, the most commonly reported side effects of this substance are intense anxiety and panic attacks.

Mood disorders. In people with bipolar disease, marijuana can bring on manic episodes and increase rapid cycling between manic and depressive moods. Several studies also suggest that in some people, regular marijuana use may trigger depression.

Psychosis. Marijuana intensifies psychotic symptoms and worsens outcomes in people with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. The results of several large observational studies also strongly suggest that using marijuana can increase the risk of developing psychosis, particularly in young people.

Read the full-length article: "Medical marijuana and the mind"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter

  • References for "Medical marijuana and the mind"
  • References for "Autism spectrum disorders and the gut"
  • References for "Options for mild or moderate depression"
  • References for "Morphine and traumatic memory"
  • Medical marijuana and the mind
  • Autism spectrum disorders and the gut
  • Options for mild or moderate depression
  • Morphine and traumatic memory
  • In Brief: Addiction terminology affects clinicians' attitudes towards patients
  • In Brief: Disease-modifying drug fails in Alzheimer's study
  • Ask the doctor: What tests monitor the metabolic risks of antipsychotics?
  • Ask the doctor: What is sensory processing disorder?

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.