‘Skunk’ cannabis may damage nerve fibres in brain, finds study

Connection to psychosis of damage to message carrying ‘white matter’ remains unclear

Skunk weed: Consumption of the drug was found to  cause  harm to the   section of the brain made up   neural fibres, along which nerve signals travel, in a study by King’s College London. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Skunk weed: Consumption of the drug was found to cause harm to the section of the brain made up neural fibres, along which nerve signals travel, in a study by King’s College London. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

 

High-potency “skunk weed” cannabis may cause significant damage to vital nerve fibres linking the two halves of the brain, a new study claims.

The damage was seen to occur in the corpus callosum – the white matter that allows communication between the brain’s left and right hemispheres.

Higher consumption of the drug caused more harm, according to the evidence. But what effect it might have on users, and whether there is any connection with psychosis remains unclear.

Potent forms of cannabis, popularly known as skunk, contain high levels of the active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. They are thought to be the most widely used forms of cannabis in the UK.

Lead researcher Dr Paola Dazzan, from the institute of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London, said, “We found that frequent use of high-potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not.

“This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

Two scanning techniques were used to examine white matter in the brains of 56 patients who had reported a first episode of psychosis, and 43 healthy volunteers.

Nerve signals

The corpus callosum happens to be especially rich in cannabinoid receptors, proteins that trigger biochemical effects in response to THC.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, found that frequent use of high-potency cannabis was linked to a recognised marker of white matter damage.

Co-author Dr Tiago Reis Marques, also from King’s College, said, “This white matter damage was significantly greater among heavy users of high-potency cannabis than in occasional or low-potency users, and was also independent of the presence of a psychotic disorder.”

Dr Dazzan said there was an “urgent need” to educate health professionals, the public and policymakers about the risks associated with cannabis use.

He added, “As we have suggested previously, when assessing cannabis use it is extremely important to gather information on how often and what type of cannabis is being used. These details can help quantify the risk of mental health problems and increase awareness on the type of damage these substances can do to the brain.”

A study involving south Londoners published in February suggested that smoking skunk cannabis can triple the risk of suffering a serious psychotic episode.

Psychosis is a serious mental condition characterised by hallucinations and delusions that can lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia.