Does Using Drugs 'Even Just Once' Change Your Brain Forever?

Massachusetts GeneralMassachusetts GeneralLast Friday Live Science reported the results of an unpublished study finding that "teens who have used drugs even just once in their lives have brain characteristics that are different from those who have never used drugs." That is the sort of finding that resulted in a mini pot panic a few months ago, after a study reported in The Journal of Neuroscience supposedly found that "marijuana re-shapes brains of users" (according to NBC News), that "even casually smoking marijuana can change your brain" (per The Washington Post), that "casual pot use impacts brains of young adults" (The Oregonian), that "recreational pot use" is "harmful to young people's brains" (Time), that "casual marijuana use" is "bad for young adults" (The Times of India), and that "even 'casual' marijuana use can knacker bits of your brain" (Gizmodo UK).

In both cases, the brain differences were measured by MRI scans at a single point in time, so it is impossible to say whether they were caused by drug use. It also is not clear whether the differences are permanent or, most important, whether they have any functional significance. But so far the newer study has not generated the same sort of sensational coverage (although that might still happen), possibly because the lead researcher, University of California at Davis graduate student David G. Weissman, says his findings probably reflect pre-existing differences among his subjects.

Here is how Live Science describes the results of Weissman's study, which involved 71 Mexican-American 16-year-olds:

Among teens who'd ever used drugs, a brain region known as the nucleus accumbens—which is thought to play a role in the rewarding feeling that can come with taking drugs—was more in sync with areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex, compared to in teens who'd never used drugs. The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision making, planning and other behaviors that require complex thinking.

But the nucleus accumbens was less in sync with an area near the hippocampus, which is important for memory formation, in teens who had used drugs, compared with those who had never used. 

Weissman thinks these differences, rather than resulting from drug use, made the subjects more inclined to use drugs:

Weissman said he suspects that these brain differences existed before drug use, and underlie a tendency to take risks, which includes using drugs, he said.

Weissman said the level of drug use among the teens in the study was typical of teens that age —about half had used drugs before, and they did not use drugs very frequently.

"It's possible, but seems unlikely, that that level of use would produce significant changes [in the brain], but it's an open question," Weissman said.

Whichever direction the causality runs, making a big deal of Weissman's findings seems unwarranted. Among older teenagers, drug use is not aberrant; it is normal. Since survey data indicate that most Americans have consumed drugs (most commonly alcohol, tobacco, and/or marijuana) by the time they turn 16, perhaps it is abstinence that requires an explanation.

[Thanks to Ron Steiner for the tip.]

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  • Stickler Meeseeks||

    Alternate Title: What Game of Thrones can tell us about first time drug use

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    NO SPOILERS.

  • Jerry on the sea||

    People got high.

  • Almanian!||

    and DIED

  • gaoxiaen||

    It changes your mind to the idea that the WOD and a hundred years of propaganda is bullshit. That's the big problem.

  • Jerry on the sea||

    71 test subjects is not a study.

  • Aresen||

    That was my first thought.

    It ranks just above 'Me and a bunch of guys noticed that some of our acquaintances..."

  • ||

    Of course it's a study.

    That's beside the point. The point is whether you can draw strong conclusions from this one study on its own, and the answer is, of course, "no".

    The general public seems to be of the mistaken impression that you can make strong statements based on a single study.

    Conversely, many slightly more sophisticated folks understand that, but seem to be under the impression that as a result, the studies are worthless. That is also mistaken.

  • Jingo||

    Why are libertarians rushing to defend drug usage? The comments here should be all "doesn't matter, people are free" not "NO, drugs aren't bad because blah-blah-blah".

    Otherwise libertarians just look like libertines and you compromise the position of anyone who claims to be personally against drugs (i.e. Ron Paul) but thinks we should *trust* humans to make the right choices as in not becoming potheads, meth addicts, alcoholics, etc. or other negative things.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Some of the newspaper reports cited above stated or implied that pot "harmed" the user's brain rather than "changed" the brain, which is all the scientists were reporting (one can question the validity of both data and assumptions, too). How do these newspaper reporters know that "changes" necessarily means "harm"? Perhaps pot changes the brain in such a way as to imbue superpowers - better memory, higher IQ, telepathy, etc.

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    Because j-school seems to "change" the brain and give them magical powers to divine moral certainties out of amoral scientific studies.

  • ||

  • Pro Libertate||

    The pinnacle of my enjoyment of Sean Penn's acting.

  • Mainer2||

    I don't even need to click the link to know what that it.

  • gaoxiaen||

    The one that they burned with a flash-bang grenade?

  • John||

    First, "change" doesn't necessarily mean "bad". Education changes your brain forever, yet I don't hear anyone talking about how we can end the horrors of formal education. Second, as the article points out change can be temporary. I don't see how it would be possible to ethically study these effects. To really see what is going on, you would have to take children, divide them into an experimental and a control group, then feed drugs to the experimental group and study their brains over the entire period of their adolescence and compare your results. That sort of study is not going to happen outside of maybe North Korea or Cuba. But without that kind of research, all we are left with is the bare observation that drugs seems to change the brain patterns for some unknown length of time of adolescents who use them. That doesn't make a very good scare story I don' think.

  • sarcasmic||

    Change is always bad unless it is accompanied by hope.

  • Aresen||

    Of course, we have seen neither change nor hope in the last 5 years, so how can we tell?

  • gaoxiaen||

    We've seen change. Hope, not so much.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now, hope is the street name for which drug again?

  • DWC||

    Now you're getting it!!! Barry should have rolled out a mascot years ago - Hopey McChange. 'Cept, I'm guessing they'd be sued by McDonalds.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Which, as I mentioned above, is why some of the journalists reporting on the research, took the liberty of changing "change" to "harm". Much better story.

  • John||

    Wouldn't it be funny if it turned out that a single or limited number of uses of pot caused kids to mature faster or develop higher cognitive development quicker. The civil war among the various soccer moms trying to keep the devil weed from their snowflakes and the others trying to give it to their snowflakes in hopes of getting an edge on standardized tests would be delicious.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    Sure - I look at the climate change issue in a similar vein. Let us accept for a moment that the earth is warming and that it is largely due to the effects of humans (I am a scientist and am skeptical of this, but whatever). It seems that virtually of the climate change alarmists instantly ASSUME this is a bad thing. As far as I know, there have been no studies that do a thorough evaluation of both positive and negative effects of global warming on the world population. The only thing you hear about is rising water levels, polar bears, more severe weather, etc. What about the possible benefits? Might they outweight the costs? Perhaps global warming is a tremendous net positive...

  • BiMonSciFiCon||

    "(I am a scientist and am skeptical of this, but whatever)."

    Nuh uh. Tony says this can't be true.

    I can't see any benefit to large tracks of land in Siberia and Canada becoming arable. None at all.

  • John||

    AGW research is the giant sand worm of confirmation bias. Basically, connecting whatever you want to study to "global warming" is a very good way to get funding. For example, if you want to study the mating habits of squirrels in the great north woods and the effects of inbreeding, you may or may not get funding. But if you want to study the effects of global warming on the mating habits of said squirrels, your funding options are much greater.

    We have created an entire industry built around funding people who show how horrible the effects of global warming are and how real it is. But AGW believers cling to the idea that such a system could ever negatively effect the science being done.

  • Aresen||

    Wouldn't it be funny if it turned out that a single or limited number of uses of pot caused kids to mature faster or develop higher cognitive development quicker.

    I suspect that, in the very near future, there will be drugs which significantly improve academic performance.

    All the health warnings in the universe won't stop the soccer moms from dosing their kids with it.

  • John||

    For sure. the fact that those kids later will have children with two heads or develop terets syndrome after 50 will not deter them. Such risks are nothing when compared to the glory of a mother whose kid got into the right school. And it is all about them anyway, right?

  • gaoxiaen||

    A: Let's go shoot up our high school.
    B: Let's just burn one and order a pizza.
    A: Okay.

    Result: No Columbine.

  • gaoxiaen||

    (Brain) Change I can believe in..

  • VicRattlehead||

    Sad but probably true, at least they would have had friends, plus being the jocks weed connect prevents being picked on so maybe your on to something

  • SugarFree||

    Everything you do changes your brain forever.

    Journalism school seems to change it into a polenta-esque mush shot through with random idiocies.

  • From the Tundra||

    Mmmmmm. Polenta.

    I like the scary brain scan pics, though. It gives the stupidity in the article a nice scienc-ey flair.

  • SugarFree||

    "Your brain turns from Pennsylvania and a comma into America itself!"

  • Almanian!||

    "They went looking for America....AND COULDN'T FIND IT ANYWHERE!"

  • gaoxiaen||

    The brains look better when fried. They taste better too, if you don't add sauce and cheese to the polenta.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. Kids' brains should be cryogenically frozen so that life experiences don't alter them in any way. The precious little ones are our future.

  • ||

    Just like the Prador do!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I liked that better the first time I read it, in a TV Guide description of Falling Skies.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    You laugh, but back when I was a youth, I ignored all the warnings and took drugs. Now, I'm fatter, and I don't have the energy I used to have. Learn from my experience!

  • From the Tundra||

    You need to squat more.

  • gaoxiaen||

    He does, when he pisses.

  • Mainer2||

    Same here...and my hair fell out.

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    I must've been taking drugs without my own knowledge, because I got the same results!

  • R C Dean||

    Yeah, the blackouts can be a bitch.

  • VicRattlehead||

    +1 Hank Hill

  • Mainer2||

    perhaps it is abstinence that requires an explanation.

    Every society on earth has something to drink, smoke, snort or chew to alter one's mood, which suggests that abstinence is actually the deviation from the norm.

  • VicRattlehead||

    its funny that currently 10% of all people become addicts, and that 10% maintain complete abstinence
    maybe this is something coded into our genetics?

  • Zeb||

    Doesn't everything you ever do change your brain forever?

    I smoked a lot of pot as a teenager and I am sure it changed my brain in some ways, but I don't think it was bad and I have no regrets about it.

  • sarcasmic||

    I smoked a lot of pot as a teenager and I am sure it changed my brain in some ways

    Same here, and I can say for certain that it did not, uh, crap. What were we talking about?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Church. It really fucks with your psyche. And your love life.

  • John||

    Also, do scientists even know what these sorts of scans really mean? Can anyone even tell you what is a good scan and what is a bad scan? I guess if there is no activity or a huge drop, that would be bad. But otherwise, how do they know enough to evaluate a "change"?

  • John||

    Speaking of brain damage, the Vegas cop killers were occupy Wall Streeters.

    While living in Lafayette, Jerad and his wife Amanda took part in last November’s “Million Mask March” – a gathering of protesters from the Occupy movement, anarchists, and hacktivists.

    Nick Wertz, one of the organizers of the Lafayette march, said it attracted many people upset over a lot of issues.

    “Everyone there just seem kind of like normal people. At least they were going to stick up with what they thought was right,” he said.

    http://chicago.cbslocal.com/20.....n-indiana/

    There goes that narrative. The funny thing is that they very well may have been neoNazis. The Nazis, being totalitarian socialists, hate capitalism too. The far right and the far left mix in the same toxic stew. Of course the media could never admit that and have seemed to have dropped this story since it doesn't fit the "killer tea bagger" meme.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm sure Maddow will keep the narrative going for all of the fifty or so people who watch her show.

    I wonder which has a larger viewership. Maddow or the Independents.

  • Rhywun||

    I thought the Left loves her?

  • John||

    All cable news ratings have gone in the tank but MSNBCs are especially low. As the Obama administration has fallen apart over the last year, the number of people who want to listen to the party talking points has drastically plunged.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    On the one hand you have a few confused 60s people who fantasize that they heard Jimmy Hendrix play in Selma until the Dean kicked them out, and on the other hand you have the denizens of H&R *plus* people who (judging from the type of people targeted by the commercials) are too old and tired to change the channel after watching Fox Business's afternoon programs.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    On the one hand you have a few confused 60s people who fantasize that they heard Jimmy Hendrix play in Selma until the Dean kicked them out, and on the other hand you have the denizens of H&R *plus* people who (judging from the type of people targeted by the commercials) are too old and tired to change the channel after watching Fox Business's afternoon programs.

  • Raven Nation||

    ^ This is you commenting on drugs.

  • Raven Nation||

    *your

  • Raven Nation||

    I'm sure Brian Ross will get right on it.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Well, good intentions count for something.

  • ace_m82||

    "perhaps it is abstinence that requires an explanation"

    I've abstained from all of the above, completely. I don't wish to mess with substances that I may be genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to.

    Using the substances is not wrong, but some people can't use them without self-destructive behavior. That being said, as long as they don't harm others, that is their right. Abusus non tollit usum.

    Oh, and I was a Marine. And a Christian Fundamentalist. So I'm a bit of an outlier.

  • Almanian!||

    Here - puff this. You'll feel better....

    *passes joint*

  • ace_m82||

    No thanks.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Nobody's perfect. Except you. You're a perfect example of a bad example.

  • np||

    In both cases, the brain differences were measured by MRI scans at a single point in time, so it is impossible to say whether they were caused by drug use. It also is not clear whether the differences are permanent or, most important, whether they have any functional significance. But so far the newer study has not generated the same sort of sensational coverage (although that might still happen), possibly because the lead researcher, University of California at Davis graduate student David G. Weissman, says his findings probably reflect pre-existing differences among his subjects.

    How the fuck is this guy a grad student at a renowned university publishing a paper and not do or consider something as simple as before vs after comparisons? You take one snapshot of person A and compare it to one snapshot of person B... then say, "yep, that spot in person A's brain, probably come from pot" even when you admit it could've been there before.

  • John||

    Because peer review has become a joke in a lot of fields that is how. Time and time again junk studies like this are peer reviewed and published. I guess most scientists don't have the time to actually do the review and just okay it if it looks good and tells them something they want to hear.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Original research is considered better than just trying to redo someone else's experiments and seeing if it produces the same results.

    Would you rather be the Guy Who Discovered Something Awesome, or the Guy Who Double-Checked Someone Else's Research?

  • John||

    And checking other people's work doesn't get you funding. So, you couldn't do it if you wanted to. There are very few tenured researchers. Most of them basically rent a lab via grant money. And you only get grant money for original research.

    This actually is an area where government funding would make sense. Set up a grant program to fund researchers to do nothing but check and review previous work. That of course will never happen because few in the scientific community are honest enough to actually welcome their work being checked.

  • ||

    The paper in question is neither published nor peer reviewed.

  • John||

    So it is basically the equivalent of a newspaper publishing the results of some kid's high school science project.

  • ||

    Not really. It was presented at a conference for feedback. They will probably take whatever feedback they received (likely mostly in the form of "But did you consider ____?"), put it in the long list of caveats in the paper's discussion section, and publish it.

  • pan fried wylie||

    the results of an unpublished study

  • Paul.||

    What're you talking about? This kid's got a big future in a Public Health Department somewhere.

  • John||

    You think you are kidding Paul. I bet anything that is exactly where he ends up.

  • Christophe||

    Actually, the author believes it was there before:

    "Weissman said he suspects that these brain differences existed before drug use, and underlie a tendency to take risks, which includes using drugs, he said."

    Probably still needs research, but not the narrative the media's pushing at all.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    "Thanks to Ron Steiner for the tip"

    Uh, Mr. Sullum, Steiner...

    Steiner couldn't mobilize enough men. He was unable to carry out his tip.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    These men will stay here: Notorious G.K.S., From the Tundra, SugarFree and Gilmore...

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    Wow, I bet we're each going to get a cookie!

  • gaoxiaen||

    I'd prefer a brownie.

  • GILMORE||

    That's a really good question.

    Much like this question about World Cup Soccer, in a segment titled, "Proof Americans Know Nothing About Soccer"

    Please note that the person answering this question is Australian.

    Which should make you go, "yeah, man, cause, like, you know that makes the joke like, totally *meta* and shit. Also, people in L.A. are totally fucking stupid. Long Beach one love!"

  • trshmnster the terrible||

    That segment sucks in general. The funny part when Leno did it was that he got the people on the street to start bullshitting about something they didn't know about and end up exposing their stupidity.

    This one is more about the prankster saying something incredibly stupid and then holding a microphone in front of people trying to figure out why he just said something that stupid.

  • Warrren||

    Oh noes ma brains!

  • GILMORE||

    Pictures of brains are totally trippy. What were we talking about?

  • Brandon||

    Sponsored by Project SAM?

  • ||

    Some of the newspaper reports cited above stated or implied that pot "harmed" the user's brain rather than "changed" the brain, which is all the scientists were reporting
    First, "change" doesn't necessarily mean "bad".
    Everything you do changes your brain forever.
    Doesn't everything you ever do change your brain forever?

    Did you guys miss these parts:

    Weissman said he suspects that these brain differences existed before drug use, and underlie a tendency to take risks, which includes using drugs, he said.
    "It's possible, but seems unlikely, that that level of use would produce significant changes [in the brain], but it's an open question," Weissman said.

    Simmer down, and take a minute longer to read.

  • Almanian!||

    Carl, it's "puff, puff, PASS", mmkay bro?

  • Almanian!||

    I'm less concerned about the marijuana I smoked in copious amounts in my youth, and more concerned about potential tampering with....with...my...precious, bodily fluids.

    Have you ever seen a Commie drink water? Well, have you, Mandrake?

  • Warrren||

    You see what letting illegal things immigrate to brainland does? It's either a metaphor or an analogy people!

  • Almanian!||

    What does this tell us about the effect of Game of Thrones on people's brains?

  • GILMORE||

    BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINNNNNNSSSSSSS

  • SIV||

    The Journal of Neuroscience

    I loved their articles on dysaesthesia aethiopica and drapetomania .

  • RishJoMo||

    That looks liek its gonna be really cool

    www.WentAnon.tk

  • D. M. Michell||

    I tried marijuana in my late teens but, overall, didn't like the effects. My second wife started smoking when she was 15 and her petite mal epilepsy seizures stopped. In her 20's she got a two year degree in accounting through a business school. She got straight A's. She would smoke in the morning upon rising, during her lunch hour, and again just before she started doing her homework. No brain problems. Everyone is different. I wouldn't have been able to study while stoned and I would have had my head in the refrigerator.

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