10 June 2016

Scientists Discover What Causes Cannabis Addiction

With cannabis being a naturally occurring drug that derives from the cannabis plant, many people feel that this drug should be legalised. For a long time, the debate has raged about whether cannabis is addictive or not, but those who suffer from cannabis addiction know first-hand the damage that this illness can cause.

While many argued for years that it was not an addictive drug, it is now recognised as such, and scientists have recently discovered the reason it is addictive. They have found that certain circuits in the brain are disrupted when a person smokes cannabis long-term, which can lead to dependency and cravings for the drug.

Reward Sensors

Scientists have revealed that reward sensors in the brains of those who are long-term cannabis users light up when these individuals see pictures of cannabis or associated drug paraphernalia. It is these changes that scientists say show the difference between those who smoke cannabis occasionally and those who have developed a dependency.

As with all addictions, cannabis addiction causes a number of adverse side effects in the lives of those affected. As well as having an impact on physical and mental health, it can cause relationship problems. However, just as with other types of addiction, those with a cannabis addiction will continue to use the drug despite the obvious harm it is causing. This is because they have lost control over their ability to resist the cravings they are experiencing.

Commonly Used Drug

Here in the UK, cannabis is the most commonly used drug, just as it is in the US. Although, on the other side of the Atlantic, twenty-five US states have now made cannabis legal for medicinal or recreational use. Around 22.2 million people in the US who were questioned regarding cannabis admitted to having used the drug in the previous month.

In the UK, 6.7 per cent of those aged between 16 and 59 admitted to using cannabis in 2014/2015.

Lack of Information

With cannabis being the most widely used drug both here and in the US, you would expect there to be quite a lot of information regarding how the drug leads to addiction, but Dr Francesca Fibley from the University of Texas said that information is still quite scarce. Nevertheless, Dr Fibley, who works at the university’s School of Behavioural and Brain Sciences, said that there are a number of studies suggesting that cannabis affects the part of the brain known as the mesocorticolimbic reward system.

It is this brain circuit that controls the release of dopamine – the body’s ‘feel-good’ hormone. Dopamine is the chemical that produces feelings of pleasure and causes people to want to recreate the feeling again and again. It is not just released when a person takes drugs or drinks alcohol, however. It is also released when people have sex or eat certain foods.


Scientists wanted to learn how cannabis affected the reward system of the brain and so conducted a study of fifty-nine adult cannabis users and seventy participants who did not use it. Use of other drugs and brain injuries were taken into account when analysing the results.

The study involved showing participants a series of pictures relating to cannabis, such as a joint, pipe and bong. Patients were then shown pictures of various fruits that they had said they liked. After each picture, patients were asked to rate their urge to use cannabis. Participants were also requested to complete a survey in which they were asked questions about how cannabis has affected their life. Many admitted to problems within their family because of their use of the drug.

Scientists used MRI to scan the brains of participants while they were looking at the images. In the cannabis users, the reward system lit up when the participant looked at the images relating to cannabis. Nonetheless, the same could not be said when they looked at the pictures of the fruit.

On the other hand, those who did not smoke cannabis registered no change in their reward system when looking at pictures of the drug, but for some, the reward system became more active when they viewed images of fruit.

Dr Fibley said, “We found that this disruption of the reward system correlates with the number of problems, such as family issues, individuals have because of their marijuana use. Continued marijuana use, despite these problems, is an indicator of marijuana dependence.”

Consequences of Cannabis Addiction

Although cannabis tends to make users feel relaxed and chilled out, it can also lead to unpleasant feelings such as paranoia, hallucinations and, in some individuals, psychosis. Those who use the drug long-term are in danger of developing mental health problems, and because the drug is often smoked with tobacco, it can lead to the development of illnesses such as lung disease.

Source: Daily Mail

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