Cannabis and Brain Health

Whether it be to get high, reduce stress, change the mood, or escape challenges, many members of our community use drugs and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this.

For the most part, people tend to consume drugs occasionally and recreationally, often without long-term ill effects. For some though, drug use can become frequent, enduring and difficult to control, and in these circumstances can cause harm to health, well-being, relationships, and quality of life.

Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug in Australia and its use is continuing to rise. While cannabis can be used for medicinal purposes, such as pain relief or nausea relief following chemotherapy, approximately half a million Australians report consuming cannabis multiple times per week for nonmedicinal reasons.

Given how many people use cannabis on a regular basis, and calls for its legalisation, it is more important than ever to have an accurate understanding of the impacts of long term cannabis use. Many people who use cannabis are unaware that it can be addictive and, if used regularly for many years, can have negative impacts on the health of the brain.

Of the many brain changes that can occur, a small structure deep within the brain called the hippocampus is particularly vulnerable. As our hippocampus is key for memory, new learning, and emotional processing, people who consume cannabis long term can also develop difficulties remembering everyday tasks or controlling their response to strong emotions.

What’s the good news?

Recent neuroscientific discoveries show that these negative impacts on brain health may be reversible. Scientists have found that when long term heavy cannabis users stop smoking for two years or more, the health of their hippocampus is indistinguishable from people who have never smoked cannabis.

While it’s encouraging news that brain health may be restored with abstinence, for many long term cannabis users it’s extremely difficult to stop, and stay stopped for many years. This got us thinking, could there be a way to speed up recovery in the brain?

We all know exercising is good for our body, but regular physical exercise is also extremely beneficial for our brain. Both strength and cardio based exercise programs have been shown to increase the size of certain areas of the brain, to improve the health of cells in the brain, and to optimise brain functioning.

Exercise has an especially powerful effect on the hippocampus, generating new neurons, healthier neurons, and better communication between it and other regions of the brain. For example, one BrainPark study found that exercising three times a week for 12-weeks could increase the size of the hippocampus by 3.2%. This might not seem like a lot, but it was enough to improve the exerciser’s ability to learn new information by 6%.

Can exercise speed up brain health recovery following long-term cannabis use?

Although exercise has a powerful effect on the health of the brain, we don’t know if it can reverse the negative impact long term cannabis use has on the brain. So BrainPark and Turning Point have come together to conduct a world-first research trial investigating whether physical exercise can restore brain health for long term heavy cannabis users.

The Brain, Exercise, and Addiction Trial or BEAT will discover whether regular strength training or high intensity cardio training can speed up the process of brain health recovery and improve other areas impacted by heavy cannabis use, such as memory, mood, sleep and general wellbeing, all without asking people to quit cannabis.

The first round of BEAT volunteers have completed the program and unanimously described it as fun and beneficial, describing improvements in thinking skills, energy, sleep and general well-being. Some volunteers have also found they are no longer consuming cannabis as much, or at all, after bringing exercise into their lifestyle.

With the support of our Accredited Exercise Physiologists (AEPs), BEAT volunteers are attending nearly 90% of their exercise sessions, no mean feat on their behalf, particularly considering average attendance in exercise programs for substance use is around 40%.

Sals story (name changed to protect confidentiality):

“The (exercise) sessions help give my life structure and purpose”

Sal was 22 when she joined BEAT, and had been smoking cannabis nearly every day for over four years. Like many BEAT volunteers, she did not have much exercise experience and was seriously lacking in confidence in her abilities. Despite her hesitation, Sal gave the program a go and her commitment paid off. She attended almost every exercise session and the personal and physical growth she observed was incredible.

Sal found the experience “eye opening”. It was the first time she had done something to care for herself and she was “amazed that she did it”. After 12-weeks of regular exercise, she reduced her cannabis use, and felt her sleep and confidence were massively better than before she got active. Six months later, Sal has made regular exercise part of her lifestyle and hadn’t smoked cannabis for over two months.

This is just one of many examples of how exercise has helped the physical and mental health of BEAT volunteers and improved their work, life and relationships.

Where to from here?

While the experiences of early volunteers like Sal are encouraging, the BEAT trial is still underway and the final results are not yet in. To be one of the first to find out how these exercise programs impact brain health following long-term cannabis use, follow us at @BrainPark.

Ultimately, if BEAT finds that regular exercise has powerful positive impacts on brain health, cognitive health, and mental health, helping get regular cannabis users active could provide an empowering and accessible intervention to improve the health and well-being of many.

If you need help getting started, chat to an accredited exercise professional. You can find one near you my clicking here.

Written by Dr Karyn Richardson (Research Fellow at BrainPark, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University).