Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis: Is Cannabis a Nootropic that Boosts the Brain?

In the film How High (2001), the characters Silas (Method Man) and Jamal (Redman) use a magical cannabis strain that allows them to ace their college entrance exam. As farcical as it may seem, they may have been onto something. Let’s take a look as to why (and it has nothing to do with ghosts of deceased friends) …

The brain is extremely complex, and figuring out how cannabis affects it precisely can be very difficult. The cannabis plant contains up to 20 flavonoids, 150 cannabinoids and over 200 terpenes, all with different effects at different dosages. Moreover, age also makes a difference. Non-medical use of THC during one’s teenage years and early 20s can impair learning and memory (so not necessarily great for college students!), but small amounts of THC during one’s senior years may have the opposite effect! Both CBD and THC may also be useful as a neuroprotective after suffering a stroke.

Marijuana for Alzheimers
Medical marijuana for Alzheimer’s – AD brain.

Why does cannabis have a different effect on us as we age?

Essentially, it is because the endocannabinoid system (ECS) changes as we age. During our youth, the ECS is very active. As we age, our ECS slows down and endocannabinoid activity declines. A little bit of THC could therefore replace and restore endocannabinoids (e.g. anandamide, 2-AG) to its optimum levels. The key seems to be not to over- or under- stimulate the ECS.

Why CBD and THC could be useful as a post-stroke medication

Here are a few good reasons why:

  1. THC and CBD could form a sort of “protective layer” around cells in the brain’s arteries, which can possibly decrease infarction (obstruction of blood vessels).
  2. CBD may increase blood flow to the brain via the serotonin receptor 5HT1A, making CBD potential neuroprotective.
  3. Both CBD and THC may prevent dangerous amounts of glutamate from forming in the brain, and act as an anti-neuroinflammatory.

These aspects make cannabinoids a potential therapy for not only stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI), but also multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/motor neurone disease (ALS/MND). Many of these conditions are associated with age, and all of them neuroinflammation.

Why does CBD promote neurogenesis – the growth of brain cells – when we’re older?

The human brain also degenerates as we age, losing brain cells. This leads to conditions like Alzheimer’s, which can lead to dementia. Brain cells contain cannabinoid receptors, so the theory is that keeping an optimum level of cannabinoids in the body can help keep brain cells alive or even generate new cannabinoid receptors in order to “soak up” all the extra cannabinoids in the body! This is why cannabinoids like CBD are said to promote neurogenesis.

What about cannabis and neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual’s life, such as how synapses strengthen and weaken over time. Cannabinoids play a function in learning, memory and plasticity, and CB1 receptor antagonists may actually increase neural plasticity! This means that it is possible to use cannabinoids like CBD and small amounts of tetrahydrocannabivarin, as well as terpenes like pinene, to tame the negative effects of THC whilst at the same time utilizing some of THC’s benefits.

Author: Bokkyu Kim at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

How can a person utilize cannabinoids as a nootropic to improve brain function?

First of all, it is important to realize that most of what is written here is theory, and most studies are done on mice, not humans! Also, there is huge difficulty in saying a particular medication is a preventative, especially when it comes to something like aging!

With this being said, there are some studies showing that low doses of some central nervous system (CNS) stimulants enhance cognition in healthy people. Agonists and antagonists of dopamine receptor D1 and/or adrenoceptor A2 in the prefrontal cortex demonstrate cognition-enhancing effects. Overstimulation can cause cognitive deficits.

The above can apply to cannabinoids, at least to a certain extent. Moreover, cannabinoids are more well-tolerated than many medications, even innocuous ones like ibuprofen. Whilst it is possible that taking too much THC may cause some cognitive deficits (especially in young people), unlike many CNS stimulants, overdose on cannabinoids alone will not kill you.

Here’s some ways of using cannabinoids as a possible nootropic (including rehashing some of what has been written above):

  • Think of age – younger people are generally more sensitive to THC. For older people, and especially those approaching middle-age or their senior years, a small amount of THC may be beneficial.
  • Utilize the entourage effect to your benefit – pinene, CBD and small doses of THCV (larger doses of THCV are a CB1 receptor agonist) may buffer against the negative effects of THC. CB2 receptor agonists like beta-caryophyllene (found in black pepper) can also potentially exponentiate THC’s and CBD’s stress-busting, analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Don’t demonize or avoid THC entirely – small doses have stress-busting and anti-inflammatory effects. This can possibly make small amounts of THC great for treating nausea or post-exercise inflammation, for example, especially when combined with CBD and other cannabinoids and terpenes (e.g. limonene, linalool). Also, some types of cancer treatment may require high doses of THC, so it is a compound that is often unfairly called “non-medical”.
  • Keep your mind and body as active as possible – a good diet, exercise, playing an instrument, learning new skills (e.g. drawing, dancing), and playing board games & quizzes can all help slow cell aging. Some slight euphoria from cannabinoids may even help you enjoy these activities even more!
  • Different methods of ingestion may be best to take advantage of cannabinoids’ possible nootropic effects – tinctures and possibly even microdosing using high-quality vaporizers (e.g. Volcano Vaporizers, not necessarily pre-filled vape pens) may be best.
  • Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the acidic precursor to THC, and is non-psychoactive. THCA may also have its anti-inflammatory properties, and could be useful, especially for younger people. However, as THCA does not bind to either CB1 or CB2 receptors, it may actually be a small amount of THC that is doing the work! There could be some sort of way THCA (or an analogue of THCA, THCA-B) that exerts its effects by slowly “filtering” THC into cells, but this is all supposition. Raphael Mechoulam rightfully describes THCA as “diabolical”, as nobody is sure exactly how it works, if it works at all!
Diamond DM, et al. (2007). “The Temporal Dynamics Model of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law”. Neural Plasticity: 33. doi:10.1155/2007/60803. PMID 1764173. CC0 1.0.

What about cannabinoids in a young person’s brain? 

Children and teenagers do generally seem to be sensitive to delta-9-THC. However, this doesn’t mean that small, sub-psychoactive amounts are not useful. There are also other versions of THC, like delta-8-THC, that can be used for its antiemetic effects. This could be particularly useful for children suffering from cancer, and could prove an effective alternative to far harsher alternatives. That THC also has some pain-relieving qualities is a plus!

Other conditions, like autism, may also benefit from small amounts of THC alongside CBD. In autism, enhancing the amount of anandamide-mediated endocannabinoid signalling may correct autism-related social impairment.

Other conditions like childhood epilepsy have shown cannabidiol (CBD), as well as small amounts of THC, to be useful as an anticonvulsant. CBD does not have an affinity for CB1 receptors, and is not psychoactive in the same way THC is. Moreover, CBD can be used to mitigate the effects of THC, as can terpenes like pinene. This makes cannabinoid treatment an ideal replacement for benzodiazepine-based anticonvulsants, which generally have far more damaging side-effects.

Epilepsy; painting of an epileptic brain; medical art; anatomy; anatomy of epileptic brain.
On epilepsy : anatomo-pathological and clinical notes (with original plates and engravings.) 1870. Echeverria, M. Gonzalez (Manuel Gonzalez).

More on why cannabis has a different effect on us as we age

This may be an interesting time to posit a theory: when we are young and our brains are growing and learning, our bodies could be literally “buzzing” with anandamide. Using too much THC would not be ideal in such a situation, as it impairs neurodevelopment. However, for those young people with an endocannabinoid deficiency, the factors that affect the normal functioning of this neurodevelopment are diminished.

This means that phytocannabinoids can be used to correct endocannabinoid imbalances in children and teenagers, too. Various types of learning difficulties (e.g. social behavioral learning, learning difficulties related to anxiety, language processing disorders, ADHD and perhaps even sensory processing disorders) may perhaps be overcome by careful use of phytocannabinoids. There is little research in this area, so this is more supposition than fact.

Medical use of cannabis in paediatric medicine has a huge number of uses, and being distracted by some of medical marijuana’s psychoactive effects does not mean we should necessarily be afraid of using it in appropriate circumstances. There are also plenty of cannabinoids, flavonoids and terpenes that have immense uses. Benzodiazepines are also psychoactive (and far more deadly in instances of overdose), and we do not seem to hesitate prescribing these. Why treat naturally-derived cannabinoids so differently?

Whilst non-medical use of psychoactive cannabinoids like THC should perhaps be avoided by those aged under 21 (or even 25) in order to prevent harm, there is a significant difference when it comes to those with medical problems. Moreover, there are many cannabinoids and terpenes with little-to-no psychoactivity (and in fact antipsychotic) with medical potential. This means that there are many potential uses for cannabinoids.

With all this being said, there is still the need for many more trials as well as a deeper look into long-term effects of various cannabinoids. This is especially the case with children.

So, does cannabis boost the brain?

It is difficult to say for sure until we have the clinical trials to prove otherwise, but there is the potential that phytocannabinoids may be extremely useful for older people, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Younger people may potentially benefit from some of the terpenes and non-psychoactive cannabinoids (and, for medical use, small amounts of THC may be tolerated) found in cannabis, but care must be taken until we have more research into long-term effects.

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Booking a consultation with a doctor for a physician's recommendation or medical cannabis certificate and medical marijuana card with Leafwell.
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Featured image credit: Rendering is own work, using a modified version of the BioTensor application developed at the University of Utah. The dataset is courtesy of Gordon Kindlmann at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, University of Utah, and Andrew Alexander, W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour, University of Wisconsin, Madison. (CC BY-SA 3.0). Image can also be seen here. Author: Thomas Schultz.

Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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