As talk on cannabis legalization and its growing demand across the United States increases, so, too do questions about how the drug’s chemical components might affect mental disorders and the like. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the two primary chemical components of marijuana that give it is psychedelic and pain-relieving properties. But as these are both capable of causing mind-altering situations, it is a short step to wondering how an individual suffering from schizophrenia might be affected by exposure to either strain of cannabis.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), schizophrenia is a condition in which a person’s thought patterns, mannerisms, and overall behavior is partially or completed disabled. This is a rare mental disorder, accounting for less than 1% of the US population, but when it does surface, it can be a serious condition. The NIMH separates schizophrenic symptoms into positive, negative, and cognitive:
• Positive: hallucinations, delusions, thought/movement disorders
• Negative: reduced emotional expression, reduced ability to feel pleasure with everyday activities, depression-like symptoms, lack of speech
• Cognitive: inability to understand and implement information, inability to pay attention, poor memory
A schizophrenic individual can experience some or all of these symptoms and in varying degrees of severity. The seriousness of this mental disorder, therefore, rightly brings about the question of whether psychedelics are a healthy addition to the lives of those who suffer from this affliction.
The schizophrenic brain is most often afflicted by a general imbalance in the chemicals glutamate and dopamine. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter whose job is to send signals to nerves throughout the body and often results in a pleasant feeling for the brain, in large doses has been shown in some cases to bring about psychotic episodes in schizophrenic patients. Different drugs, including cannabis, often increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, which would seem to imply that marijuana can cause psychotic episodes in schizophrenic individuals. The dopamine cause theory is not accepted by all, however, as other studies have found anti-psychotic drugs targeted at lowering dopamine levels are not always effective.
Glutamate, another neurotransmitter, and particularly dysfunction in the NMDA receptor, is the second culprit that has been singled out and blamed for one of the causes of schizophrenia. When the NMDA receptor is unable to properly pass information along its nerve network, it can lead to the emergence of schizophrenia in individuals. Exposure to cannabis at an early age, in conjunction with possible genetic abnormalities and/or early childhood trauma, has been known to cause this interruption of the NMDA receptor.
But what does it all mean? To what extent do THC and CBD cause or exacerbate schizophrenia? Or do they at all? These questions are the crux of the growing argument, and while there is no straightforward answer, we can, at least, discuss the possibilities.
THC and the Endocannabinoid System
Every individual has a biological system that is the key to why cannabis users “get high” as well as maintaining a sense of “homeostasis” in our body’s overall molecular system: the endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoid receptors within the endocannabinoid system are what are affected when an individual is exposed to cannabis. When these receptors are exposed to THC, in particular, there is a possibility that a psychotic episode can not only be triggered but persist long after THC has left the system. This is particularly dangerous for schizophrenics or other individuals predisposed to psychotic episodes.
THC is particularly troublesome because the endocannabinoid system is unable to metabolize it as quickly as is needed to prevent psychotic episodes (or, for other, the sensation of being “high”). Add in the fact that THC also reduces glutamate production (which prevents the NMDA receptor from doing its job) and increases dopamine levels, and there is a recipe for schizophrenic disaster lying in wait.
CBD and Schizophrenia
The overwhelming focus on the dangers of THC with mental disorders disregards the possible beneficial side-effects of CBD—including possible antipsychotic properties. Experimental studies are emerging that seem to be pointing towards CBD as anxiety-reducing and possibly beneficial in the right doses. Indeed, CBD seems to generate the exact opposite results as THC, and can, in some cases, even counteract THC’s influence in the body.
CBD holds a type of neurotransmitter that targets serotonin receptors, much in the same way that serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work. Meaning that CBD has many of the same properties as popular antidepressants like Zoloft or Prozac. To top it off, CBD has far fewer side-effects than most prescription antipsychotics and antidepressants on the market today.
More studies are required to further corroborate these early results, but if CBD becomes safe for schizophrenic patients to take—and that CBD proves it can help control psychotic episodes and anxiety—then science may have finally found a healthy alternative to the damages that schizophrenic drugs like lithium cause.