Does Marijuana Kill Brain Cells?

Pop culture is always shaping our lives, mindsets, and thoughts. Whether we like it or not, some of our strangest prejudices come from the silver screen. One such stereotype is that all “stoners” are dumb or slow.

Take the movie Pineapple Express, for example, it was a 2008 hit film that made more than $100 million at the box office. It is touted as one of the best “buddy stoner” films of all time. It’s led to a particular type of marijuana known as, you guessed it, Pineapple Express to be one of the most popular strains of all time.

The film is renowned for its silly and over the top comedy including zingers like:

“I seen’t it”

“It’s like killing a unicorn, with like, a bomb”

“It’s out bro! Monkey’s out of the bottle”

These silly lines and other comedic effects throughout the film are all representations of stoners and those who use marijuana regularly. Of course, this isn’t the only such film that depicts drug use in this light. There are tons of Hollywood hits that display drug use from cocaine to meth to alcohol and back again.

As for weed, it’s usually displayed in a light of fun, happy-go-lucky giggle fits, and some really, really dumb sounding one-liners. Other common tropes of the stoner include tie-dye shirts, hippie styles, and a laid back attitude. We also often see these people as being a little bit “slower” than the rest of the cast.

Both physically and mentally, a person using marijuana is usually shown to be a bit out of it. In other films, we can see cast members portraying individuals with an addiction to it that leads them to need treatment for marijuana addiction, or maybe they face things like cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome.

But, is there any truth to the perception we have that smoking marijuana makes you less smart and actively causes brain damage to those who smoke it?

All About Marijuana In The Brain: The Good And The Bad

Let’s start by covering the basics. Most of us know by now that marijuana is a plant that occurs naturally. It is actually a plant known as cannabis. As is the case with most plants, cannabis can come in a couple of different types. The two main types of cannabis are Cannabis sativa and Cannabis sativa L.

Cannabis sativa L is the non-psychotropic, or non-mind altering, type. It is most commonly used in the materials industry. It can be used to produce oils, materials for clothes, rope, and much more. It’s commonly referred to as hemp. More now than ever before, it can also be found within a variety of beauty products like lotions and shampoos. Some crafting kits even boast the inclusion of hemp string for friendship bracelets.

Part of this major uptick in the use of hemp is due to its small environmental impact compared to most synthetic materials. This actually is part of what draws people to using marijuana as well for things like anxiety or pain instead of pharmaceutical options.

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Cannabis sativa is the strain that makes up what is commonly known as marijuana. Other names for this include:

  • weed
  • pot
  • dope
  • grass

Currently, marijuana is the leading most used illegal (remember, it is still illegal at the federal level in the United States) drug. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that about 22.2 million people use it each month.

It is made up of seeds, stems, roots, and other plant materials that range from green to purple in color. It is lauded for its psychoactive properties and medicinal value. These are directly related to its active ingredient, THC.

An active ingredient is an ingredient that is responsible for the active effects of a substance. For marijuana, it is known as THC, as we said before. THC stands for delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. This is also the chemical that your brain will slowly develop a tolerance for over time with prolonged use of marijuana.

However, this type of marijuana isn’t the only kind that people are using.

Synthetic Alternatives To Marijuana Are More Dangerous To The Brain Than We Realize

Synthetic marijuana is a man-made hallucinogenic substance that is typically sprayed onto plant material. These products that make up synthetic marijuana are commonly known as herbal or liquid incense and can often be found in e-cigarettes and other types of devices. Truthfully, it is not safe for human consumption but has become popular in recent years.

Also known as “fake weed,” “K2,” or “spice” it produces mind-altering effects and can cause the individual to act in an odd manner. Since the main ingredients in it are chemicals that impact the cannabinoid receptors, just as THC can, they are often known as fake weed and synthetic marijuana. Often it is advertised as a more powerful, safe, and legal alternative to cannabis.

Synthetic marijuana is illegal and may have toxic ingredients that can cause increased heart rate, unexplained bleeding, and vomiting. According to government sites, it is part of a new category of drugs known as new psychoactive substances or NPS.

Synthetic marijuana may cause the brain and body to experience:

  • memory loss
  • seizures
  • psychosis
  • cardiac and respiratory problems
  • stroke
  • paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • altered perception of euphoria
  • violent behavior
  • kidney and brain damage

In addition to the above symptoms, synthetic marijuana can be addictive to individuals who take it. Regular users trying to quit may have the following withdrawal symptoms if they have been using things like spice:

  • headaches
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • Irritability

Also, it is important to recognize that you can overdose on synthetic versions of marijuana. An overdose occurs when a person uses too much of a drug and has a dangerous reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms, brain damage, or death. The danger here is heightened as some synthetic versions are compounded with things like synthetic opioids which increase the risk for accidental overdose.

Marijuana And The Brain

The thing that makes substances of use, like illegal drugs, misused medications or alcohol so unique is that they change or alter the usual mechanics of the brain. They do this because they are made up of special chemicals that change the way the current chemical cycles in the brain work. THC and the other components of marijuana are what directly impact the brain and can even change its chemistry.

In our brain, we have special messenger chemicals called neurotransmitters. These messenger chemicals are responsible for signals moving through the brain and most of the rest of the body. They are responsible for emotions like happiness or sadness and even reactions like when you accidentally touch a hot plate.

There are a ton of different types of these neurotransmitters—or messengers—in the brain. Each of them has different functions and specialties. You can think of them as a mail system.

Some mail trucks come by every day with our standard packages and envelopes but sometimes we ordered items like a new TV or maybe even a new mattress online. When those packages get sent out they don’t fit in the everyday USPS truck, and they come in via a bigger box truck and get dropped off at a different time, or maybe even right at your front door rather than the mailbox down the driveway.

The same thing happens in our brains with our chemical messengers. Each neurotransmitter has its own job or its own type of package delivery. For example, chemicals like dopamine or serotonin are responsible for emotions and happiness. Other chemicals include things like cannabinoids. These along with endocannabinoids are responsible for things like pleasure, memory, concentration, and perception.

They are also the neurotransmitter, or chemical messengers, that marijuana impacts. Specifically, THC mimics these cannabinoids and endocannabinoids. This is why smoking cannabis can lead to a change in reaction time, emotions, concentration, and more.

Since using pot affects brain areas that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory and time perception, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we get used to this type of change or feeling in our brains. Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing the production of, and sensitivity to, its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters.

Does Marijuana Kill Brain Cells?

A common thought that also stems from the tropes seen in films and TV is that cannabis use “kills” brain cells. This became what we thought of as “common knowledge” during President Reagan’s time in the Oval Office because of the infamous PSA that touted the line “this is your brain on drugs”.

The basis of the PSA actually originally came from a study conducted by Dr. Robert Heath. The study claimed it found structural changes in the brains of monkeys that were dosed with marijuana. Since then, this study has been discredited as it could never be replicated. Actually, the National Center of Toxicological Research paired with a variety of other scientists and research teams to try to replicate this effect. Neither of the larger studies ever found any evidence of “physical alteration”.

This essentially laid to rest the claims that using marijuana kills brain cells, yet with the Hollywood tropes and a lack of news surrounding these newer, better-controlled studies, the common consensus is still that marijuana must impact brain cells by killing them off. Now, that isn’t to say that marijuana doesn’t impact the brain. It can impact different parts of the brain and even some specialized circuits in the brain.

There are a lot of different parts and pieces of the brain. Things like the cerebellum, the hippocampus, multiple lobes and cortices, and even something called the basal ganglia.

THC is a chemical that changes the functioning of the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex. The hippocampus is a memory center in the brain. One of the fun tricks to remembering this part of the brain and the role it plays is to think of a “hippo on campus”, which is definitely something that we would remember. The other part it impacts, the orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for enabling a person to form new memories and shift attentional focus.

Also, THC can mess with the functioning of the cerebellum and basal ganglia. These are brain areas that regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time. So, when Hollywood shows that stoner trope of someone waiting for a stop sign to turn green, it turns out that it is something that using marijuana can cause.

The special circuit that the impact of the cannabinoid neurotransmitters, or messengers, can actually also trigger the brain’s reward system. In the normal brain, dopamine is the usual reward chemical. This system can be and sometimes is activated or altered by more than just substances that get misused.

The Mailing System Of The Brain And THC

Think of the receptor system in the brain like that mail system that we discussed before. Once they drop off their package at the mailbox, then the package spends time in the mailbox or at the door. This is similar to how a chemical transfer works in the brain. Once the neurotransmitter drops the chemical off, then the chemical gets to work producing the feeling associated with the message, whether the message they are sending and receiving is about happy feelings or more negative feelings.

So for example, let’s say that the dopamine mailman has come and delivered your daily dose of dopamine. Once the dopamine has linked up to your receiving mailbox, then it sits there and does its business to make us feel happy. After a time, we (or in this instance a protein) goes to pick up the mail for the day and disconnects that dopamine from the receptor in the mailbox.

This allows the receptor to be ready to accept its next drop off from the mailman. The same can be said for the cannabinoid receptor system that THC impacts. Once the cannabinoids have linked up with their special receptors, a protein comes along and removes the messenger chemical from the receptor.

When using drugs or alcohol, this communication or mailing process can get knocked out of sync or out of order. This can cause the neurotransmitter to stay connected to its receptor longer or to even potentially come back too soon.

And when the mail doesn’t get picked up then chemicals start to rush the brain continuously. This causes an amplified signal, also known as euphoria or a “high”.

Get To The Point: Does Marijuana Cause Addiction?

A common question related to these changes in the brain that can be attributed to substances like weed is: is it addictive?

In general, most people would want to say no. Since “It’s naturally occurring it, it can be used for medicine and it doesn’t feel like I’m addicted.”

The true answer, however, is that yes, marijuana can be considered addictive.

According to research conducted by, and with, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), THC can lead to a marijuana use disorder or cannabis use disorder. This is a type of substance use disorder (SUD) that is characterized by dependence on a substance, in this case, marijuana.

Marijuana use disorder becomes an addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with a lot of different aspects of everyday life. Some studies, as reported by NIDA, suggest that 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, rising to about 17% in those who start using it in their teens .

Some studies have shown that there is an addiction to marijuana because the features of the three stages of drug addiction outlined by clinical researchers are also present in those who show dependence on cannabis.

Part of this may be due to the increase in the THC level in weed within recent years and particularly over the last handful of decades. This makes addiction or dependence much more likely than ever before.

Using marijuana can and usually will have both physical and psychological effects and lead to some really specific side effects.

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Side Effects Of Marijuana Use And Dependence

Most people use marijuana because It makes them feel good. Remember, it can activate those reward systems in our brain that let us feel good, relaxed, and even euphoric. When using the drug, people will often experience a “high”, this usually is seen with side effects or symptoms like:

  • increased senses
  • a different sense of time
  • feeling humorous
  • relaxation
  • mood changes
  • decreased body movement
  • impaired thinking and memory

These are also what we usually see in films and on the big screen. From munchies to the “stupid stoner” tropes, Hollywood is simply capitalizing and cashing in on some of the real side effects of using marijuana. In some instances, if too much cannabis is had, whether it is from ingesting or smoking, then it is possible to also have hallucinations, delusions, and other types of psychosis.

These types of symptoms or highs can be seen in movies like Dazed and Confused, Friday, and even in shows like That 70s Show. But, the feelings of the high that come with using marijuana isn’t the only thing to keep in mind when thinking about recurrent use and dependence. Marijuana is often responsible for both long-term and short-term effects.

Some short-term effects include:

  • altered senses (for example, seeing brighter colors)
  • altered sense of time
  • changes in mood
  • impaired body movement
  • difficulty with thinking and problem-solving
  • impaired memory
  • hallucinations (when taken in high doses)
  • delusions (when taken in high doses)
  • psychosis (risk is highest with regular use of high potency marijuana)

This is directly because marijuana over-activates parts of the brain that contain the highest number of the receptors that we were talking about earlier. However, it is important to remember that there is still no evidence that marijuana can kill brain cells or that marijuana is linked to life-threatening overdoses.

On the other hand, cannabis, or marijuana, has been linked to extreme feelings of anxiety and paranoia that can lead to panic attacks which are a result of overuse. Sometimes these lead people to seek care in the local emergency clinic which allows them to get care for the psychotic episode triggered by the overuse of marijuana.

Of course, not all the effects are short-lived. Some effects can be long-term and even lifelong. These include:

  • breathing problems
  • increased heart rate
  • intense nausea and vomiting

So, it is important to know the risks associated with it. We know now that science is showing that addiction or dependence is possible, however, not many of those people seek treatment or detox for their dependence on cannabis.

Can You Get Help And Treatment For Marijuana Addiction?

Currently, you can get treatment for marijuana addiction or a marijuana use disorder. It may not be common but there are those who seek and benefit from treatment for it. Treatment options right now are most often centered around things like binge use. Binge use is when you are using a lot of a substance, especially in a short period of time.

Treatment also focuses on things like withdrawal. Studies show that withdrawal from marijuana is possible and it can lead to an increase in the side effects and symptoms we listed above. Aside from these two main pieces, the treatment also often tries to help with the feelings of preoccupation with using.

Part of addiction is the intense need or craving to use a substance. Addiction to marijuana is no different and some of that impacts the effectiveness of treatment and the potential for relapse. This means it is critical that care focuses on that as well.

Less common is the potential of pharmacological treatments for it. This would be treatments for marijuana use disorder that rely on medications to be effective. For other drugs of use like opioids, this type of treatment has been thoroughly proven as safe and effective. It is called medication-assisted treatment and has been around for a long time. For marijuana, however, it is not used and studies are still being conducted to determine the safety and effectiveness of it.

Recovery Is Tough But So Are You, And We’re Here to Help

When it comes to getting treatment for addiction of any kind it can be intimidating, and there can be some hesitancy. For marijuana specifically, approximately half of the people who enter treatment for a marijuana use disorder are under 25 years old.

Aside from being young, most of these individuals also report other problems and even some risky behaviors. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly known as the DSM, 4.3 percent of Americans have been dependent on marijuana.

Also, 9% of those who try marijuana develop dependence. Compared to the 15% of cocaine users who develop addictions and 24% of those who use heroin, this may not seem like a lot. However, remember how many more people regularly use cannabis. This makes cannabis dependence more common than other types. Yet, we know most people never seek treatment for it. We’re here to help.

Get Help With Vertava Health And Live Your Best Life

If you or someone you love is struggling with cannabis addiction, Vertava Health is here to help. We offer comprehensive and compassionate treatment for all types of addictions and can help guide you through the difficult portions, like withdrawal and detox.

There’s one specific thing we use to help you, something unique: we use your strength. Your own dedication and strength are key ingredients in your own recovery. It might not feel like it, but we’re confident you have the power to change your life. Call us at (615) 208-2941, and we can chat about how.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many brain cells does marijuana kill?

Actually, marijuana killing brain cells is a common myth that comes from the Reagan Administration’s “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign. Marijuana can impact the brain and its chemistry, and it can lead to dependence, but it does not “kill” off brain cells.