Study finds white matter abnormalities in synthetic cannabinoid users

Synthetic cannabinoid use results in white matter abnormalities and vulnerability to psychosis, according to a pioneering study recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology.

Synthetic cannabinoids are becoming increasingly popular as a recreational drug among young people, and little is known about the long term effects of taking them. Synthetic cannabinoids are artificial substances that are often marketed as ‘designer drugs’ that claim to have the same effect as using cannabis. In fact, they are far more toxic than cannabis as they activate the cannabinoid receptor in the brain far more than the main psychoactive component in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It is thought that the increasing use of synthetic cannabinoids such as ‘Spice’, ‘Bonzai’ and ‘K2’ is due to the surplus availability, potent psychoactive effects and the fact that due to the ever changing nature of synthetic cannabinoids, many of them are undetectable during drug tests. The limited research into synthetic cannabinoid use has revealed some disturbing psychiatric and medical side effects such as paranoia, psychotic episodes, seizures, and heart attacks.  These effects tend to be seen in young people who have little experience of cannabis.

The study conducted by a team led by Nabi Zorlu (Katip Celebi University) is thought to be the first of its kind that looks into the effect of synthetic cannabinoids on the structure of the human brain. The brains of 40 people, 22 of which had a history of using synthetic cannabinoids more than 5 times a week, were studied using Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI).

The results showed that the structural integrity of white matter was reduced in synthetic cannabinoid users.  This effect was observed particularly in parts of the temporal lobe and brain stem, amongst other areas. This disturbed brain connectivity could be the cause of reduced cognitive function and increased risk of psychosis in long term users. Additionally, it was found that synthetic cannabinoid users had damaged myelin, which is the substance that insulates neurons to speed up synaptic transmission. Myelin damage has previously been reported to be caused by alterations in myelin-related gene expression as a result of long term exposure to cannabis.

Overall, the results highlight the danger of synthetic cannabinoids to healthy brain functioning. There is still a lot we don’t know about the consequences of long term synthetic cannabinoid abuse, but we do know their effects are more a lot more potent than using cannabis.