Posted on: September 2, 2019 at 12:05 pm
Last updated: December 2, 2019 at 8:02 pm

Cannabis has many research-based health benefits. But it’s not without its fair share of controversy. Strains with high THC potency have been linked to psychosis in younger populations (1), rare addictions (2), and cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome among frequent users (3), for example.

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Reefer Madness propaganda aside, there are some legitimate concerns about safe cannabis use, especially as more research becomes possible with increased legalization.

A widely discussed 2018 study claimed to find that cannabis abuse could cause aging in the brain. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

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Controversial Study Finds Cannabis Abuse Ages Brain 3 Years

Conducted by Daniel G. Amen of Amen Clinics along with researchers affiliated with Google, UCLA Medical Center, UCSF Medical Center, and Johns Hopkins University, the research was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2018. Their goal was to identify patterns of aging in a large sample of neuroimaging data.

The team studied 62,454 SPECT scans from 31,227 patients of the Amen Clinic, aged between 9 months and 105 years old. They established a “brain estimated age” based on their interpretations of each scan, then compared their guess to the chronological age of that patient.

“We have a database of 150,000 scans on patients from 120 countries. When we see a scan we really have a good sense of what it means,” Amen told Healthline.

A SPECT scan (single-photon emission computerized tomography) is a type of nuclear imaging test that shows functions, such as blood flow. While a functional MRI (fMRI) captures an instant of brain activity, a SPECT scan will average brain activity over a few minutes.

Based on the differences between the brain estimated age and the chronological age, Amen concluded that “increased brain aging was seen in alcohol use, cannabis use, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and in men.” (4)

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  • Schizophrenia: Average estimate, 4 years older
  • Cannabis abuse: Average estimate, 2.8 years older
  • Bipolar disorder: Average estimate, 1.6 years older
  • ADHD: Average estimate, 1.4 years older
  • Alcohol abuse: Average estimate, 0.6 years older

Why You Should Think Twice About Amen’s Study

There are a number of reasons to pause before taking the 2018 study at face value.

SPECT Scans are Not Widely Accepted as Valid for Mental Illnesses

The Amen Clinic uses SPECT scans to assist in diagnosing mental illnesses among patients. And while SPECT scans are sometimes used to spot signs of seizure or stroke, this is not accepted as a reliable or suitable practice for diagnosing psychiatric disorders in the scientific community.

In fact, the American Psychiatric Association released a statement in 2012, saying ” currently neuroimaging is not recommended within either the U.S. or the European practice guidelines for positively defining the diagnosis of any primary psychiatric disorder.” (5)

So it’s no surprise that Amen Clinic’s website boasts that 79% of their patients receive diagnoses and treatment plans that differ from those given by practicing clinicians. (6) They’re simply not using methods accepted as valid by the scientific and medical community at large.

Cannabis Research is Not Black and White

Scientific research on marijuana is many things, but one thing it is not is unanimous. Studies touting the negative effects of cannabis use are countered almost immediately by parallel studies suggesting its health benefits, and vice versa.

But Amen’s study does contradict (or at least ignore) other information established about the cognitive benefits of CBD (7, 8) or THC (9)

Related Reading: Effects of THC on Damaging Alzheimer’s Proteins

Daniel Amen, Not Respected in the Scientific Community

Daniel Amen’s Amen Clinics makes big bucks. It takes between $500 and $1500 just for a deposit on an appointment at one of the locations across the USA. (10) Amen is a best-selling author and a frequent guest on popular talk shows. But neither he nor his chain of clinics have been able to earn the respect of his peers.

Former APA president and chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Jeffrey Lieberman told Washington Post, “The claims [Daniel Amen] makes are not supported by reliable science, and one has to be skeptical about his motivation.” (10)

Lieberman is joined by countless experts and leaders in psychiatry, who dismiss Amen’s over-reliance on SPECT imaging as snake oil.

But Amen insists, “Psychiatry is broken. [Psychiatrists] remain the only medical specialists that rarely look at the organ they treat.” (10)

As Washington Post, Neely Tucker puts it,

“One of two things must be true.

One, Daniel Gregory Amen, born in 1954 in Encino, Calif., son of Lebanese immigrants, is 20 years ahead of virtually the entire psychiatric field (he says about three dozen other clinics use SPECT scans, but few as profusely as he does), and the establishment has failed to recognize a historic breakthrough.

Or, two, the man has grown fabulously wealthy — he lives in a $4.8 million mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean — by selling patients a high-priced service that has little scientific validity, yet no regulatory body has made a move to stop him.” (10)

What to Make of Cannabis’ Health Effects

There are several proven medicinal benefits of CBD and THC: (11)

  • CBD is used to help treat or manage seizures, inflammation, pain, psychosis or mental disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, nausea, migraines, depression, and anxiety.
  • THC is used to help treat or manage pain, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety.

But there are also short term and long term mental and physical effects of consuming cannabis, including: (12)

  • Short-term: Elevated heart rate, mood changes, impaired memory, hallucinations, difficulty concentrating, difficulty problem-solving
  • Long-term: Marijuana can have long-term negative effects on brain development when used by young people. Lung irritation, difficulty breathing, chronic cough (when consumed by smoking).

You should speak with your medical care provider to determine whether using cannabis recreationally or medicinally is a safe and beneficial option for you. If the cons outweigh the pros for you, they can help you find a suitable alternative.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.

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Maria Sykes
Team Writer
Marie Sykes is an Ontario based writer with a background in research and a love for holistic wellness. She's especially interested in boosting awareness for women's health issues. Once a shunner of gyms, Marie has found an appreciation for weight training and HIIT circuits. She enjoys trying cuisine from all over the world, and she also enjoys not caring two cents what other people think her body should look like.

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