The last couple of years has witnessed an overwhelming rise in CBD use in the US – mainly thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp cultivation as well as the sale and use of hemp-derived CBD products in the country.
Nowadays, CBD is everywhere.
It’s available in local dispensaries and gas stations, smoke shops and bars, and even online. One can vape it, smoke it, take a few drops of CBD oil/tincture under the tongue, mix it with edibles, or apply it topically as creams or balms. People use it for all sorts of medical conditions or simply for overall wellbeing.
But could CBD affect brain development in any way?
CBD, ECS & The Human Body
Cannabidiol (in short CBD) is a non-intoxicating and non-psychoactive substance, i.e. it neither induces addiction nor gives you a mind-numbing experience, enough to make you lose your cognitive abilities.
Extracted from Cannabis sativa plants (legally from hemp; not marijuana), CBD oils and other products don’t contain high enough levels of THC (∆-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) to make you ‘high’.
THC, which is the principal psychoactive compound of cannabis plants, is only present in very low levels in hemp (<0.3% by dry weight). CBD is also a well-tolerated substance, with a much better safety profile than THC and pharmaceutical drugs.
That’s why people often graduate towards CBD to manage their symptoms or overcome addictions.
So, how does CBD interact with the human body?
Research shows that CBD activates or interacts with certain neurotransmitters, receptors, and enzymes in the body to directly or indirectly influence the physiological functions. With the help of a biological system, known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS), it maintains the chemical and physiological balance within the body, which in, medical terms, is known as homeostasis.
Our body still has a few areas that remain mostly untapped by scientists. One such system, which controls some unique networks and mechanisms of our body, is the endocannabinoid system (found in all vertebrates). Ironically, we’ve only started to understand the magnanimity of its influence over the human body.
The ECS, along with its receptors and transmitters, interact – directly or indirectly – with a wide range of chemical compounds, some of which play an important role in regulating and maintaining the proper functioning of each system in our body.
Apart from enzymes, proteins-based chemicals, and fatty acids, the ECS interacts with a set of compounds, known as endocannabinoids. These compounds weren’t known or understood by us until Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered them while experimenting with the effects of cannabis plants on the human beings.
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It was Dr. Mechoulam, who identified anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA) as an endocannabinoid (like many others found later) and realized its potential in regulating moods, pain, appetite, sleep, among other physiological functions.
Based on what we know today, the ECS works in tandem with the nervous system to maintain homeostasis within the human body. When this balance gets skewed, we suffer from a variety of diseases and medical conditions.
Being a phyto(plant-derived)-cannabinoid, Cannabidiol shares a unique relationship with our body’s own endo(genous)cannabinoids. Like anandamide, CBD interacts with several neuroreceptors to induce or inhibit our nervous system to carry out some physiological activity or function.
Quite a few studies have already indicated that CBD can be highly effective in helping manage several health issues – both mental and physical. These include chronic pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, seizures, inhibiting tumor growth, heart health, among others.
This is not to mention the fact that this cannabinoid is known to promote our internal equilibrium by maintaining a continuous chemical balance in our brain and nervous system as well as hormonal balance to function normally.
CBD vs. THC: Effects on the Nervous System
Key cannabis-derived, natural cannabinoids – CBD and THC – are known to interact with the body quite differently and trigger a range of behavioral changes.
While both have a few similarities, like molecular structure and several some common therapeutic effects, the two take quite different pathways, triggering a range of diverse effects on the body and mind – some even countering each other.
Although both interact with the ECS, they do it differently. THC binds directly with the ECS receptors, causing psychotropic effects. However, CBD has complex pharmacokinetics, i.e. movement of the substance through the body. It doesn’t directly interact with the typical ECS receptors, but binds with a range of other closely related receptors and transmitters, triggering the body’s cannabinoids to do their jobs. That’s why CBD doesn’t have any psychedelic effects.
Owing to THC’s psychotropic effects, it causes a heightened sense of euphoria, pleasure, and an amplification of all senses in the user, making the other benefits, like pain management, reduced inflammation, and an overall improvement in the medical wellbeing of a person, of much less significance. THC induces addiction and dependence, besides causing withdrawal symptoms and other side effects, which can completely undo every good thing it does to a person’s body, while its effects are still on.
It’s not just the after-effects that are causes for concern. It is also unsafe for a person on marijuana to do any work that requires agility, focus, and a clear mind and able body.
Does CBD Pose Any Threat To Brain Development?
To understand this, we must wrap our heads around how CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to influence the Central Nervous System (CNS).
CBD, ECS, and Brain Development
The ECS is a network of endocannabinoids, receptors, transmitters, enzymes, fatty acids, and proteins. It interacts with CNS, enabling it to maintain the body’s internal balance.
The two key ECS receptors – CB1 and CB2 – aren’t the only receptors that CBD interacts with. Even though CBD has a “negligible affinity to the CB1R and CB2R”, studies show that it is an indirect modulator and an antagonist of CBRs, with the ability to mitigate THC’s effects.
Some studies reveal that there many more ECS receptors and non-ECS pathways, like ion channels, that CBD follows or activates to regulate appetite, mood, pain, coordination, etc. Studies indicate that CBD has milder effects on the main ECS receptors as compared with THC.
A 2010 study, published in the Cell Communication and Signaling, indicates that CBD use can promote neurogenesis, i.e. induce neural stem cells to produce nerve cells or neurons in adult animals.
All these findings seem to point towards CBD’s benevolent role in brain development.
So, let’s sum up the various ways in which CBD affects the brain:
- CBD helps relieve pain: CBD indirectly interacts with the CB2 receptor, other ECS & non-ECS receptors, as well as blocks some enzymes, to help modulate pain responses, thus reducing inflammation and pain, even while acting like a neuroprotector.
- CBD alters blood pressure & reduces anxiety: It interacts with certain hormones and neurotransmitters to modulate the way we respond to anxiety-triggering events. A 2010 study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, had similar findings when CBD was administered to subjects with social anxiety issues. It also lowers blood pressure that rises when you’re under stress.
- CBD reduces oxidative stress: CBD works on the ECS receptors, much, like antioxidants, reducing oxidative damage. A 2014 paper attested to CBD’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidative, and neuroprotective abilities. This showed that prolonged CBD use can inhibit the development of social recognition issues in Alzheimer’s disease. Another 2019 trial, published in Physiology & Behavior, displayed CBD’s efficacy in treating “mental disorders with prominent symptoms of helplessness and anhedonia”.
- CBD lowers excitotoxicity in brain cells: It prevents neuron damage due to overexcitation in patients with neurodegenerative conditions, like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, or brain injury. A 2019 study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, found substantial proof of CBD’s neuroprotective properties in such patients.
- CBD has antipsychotic properties: CBD activates the neurotransmitter (and endocannabinoid), we now know as “anandamide” (or the “bliss molecule” for its vital role in regulating moods) to lower pain sensations and improve psychotic symptoms. A 2012 study, published in the Translational Psychiatry, studied CBD’s role in promoting anandamide signaling and alleviating psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia.
What Science Says About CBD & Brain Development
A great deal of research has been done on CBD’s effects on brain development in children and adults. While most of them seem positive, they provide nothing concrete.
It’s imperative to understand the concerns put forth by the US FDA over CBD use. Currently, the only FDA-approved CBD product is Epidiolex, used for treating two serious and rare forms of epilepsy in children.
- Studies that analyzed the effects of oral cannabidiol on autistic children found improvement in the comorbidities of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), like aggression, hyperactivity, and anxiety.
However, this doesn’t mention anything about long-term CBD use by these children.
- A feasibility study, published in Neurology, involving children with autism, indicated that CBD use brings considerable improvement in behavioral outbreaks (61%), anxiety (39%), and communication problems (47%), along with considerably lower stress levels. However, there were some issues with sleep disturbances (14%), irritability (9%), and loss of appetite (9%).
- A 2018 study, published in CNS Drugs, indicated that CBD is linked to brain development due to its reaction with ECS in the body. Besides, pure CBD it is also safer on young patients’ brain development.
- An animal study, published in Neurotherapeutics, indicated that CBD has a significant effect on brain development. Additionally, it pointed out that there has been significant confusion over how CBD works, owing to “the assumption that, being a cannabinoid, CBD acts through the ECS; an assumption that has now been largely dismissed”.
Nonetheless, a 2018 study, published in the Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids, pointed out that most studies on CBD’s effects on brain development are quite vague and mostly inconclusive, particularly relating to the risks involved and the impact of its long-term use on brain functionality.
Final Thoughts: CBD Use & Human Brain
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2018 Expert Committee on Drug Dependence Report, cannabidiol is a considerably safe alternative for addressing symptoms of many ailments, irrespective of the user’s age.
Additionally, there were quite a few positive outcomes, besides safety, to the trials and tests conducted by scientists the world over. This particularly applies to patients, with autism (among children) and other mental disabilities or conditions (like schizophrenia).
Apart from a handful of studies, a majority of the research papers currently available to us deal with CBD’s benefits on animal models. The few on human trials also point to a few drawbacks, concerning efficacy and adverse events.
So, it would be prudent to conclude that more research and clinical tests are required to allow CBD use for medical purposes for a broader population.
We’d advise you to do your homework and take the opinion of a professional medical practitioner before using CBD for therapeutic purposes involving brain development.