Marijuana abuse diminishes the pleasure centers of the brain

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Dopamine is one member of the pleasure quartet of neurotransmitters in the brain. It is released in response to pleasurable stimuli. The psychoactive chemical compound in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), temporarily boosts dopamine in the brain. Once substance use becomes a dependent disorder, however, the drug slows dopamine release to a long-term trickle in the brain, which can create emotional problems.

The effect of marijuana abuse on emotions

Excessive cannabis use can morph into a disorder. Yet because excessive use doesn’t kill like other drugs, most with the disorder forego treatment, unaware that cognitive damages can be permanently debilitating.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsored recent research that found cannabis use disorder is associated with a reduced release of dopamine within the brain region navigating attention, working memory and impulsivity. Lowered dopamine release within that region – the striatum – was linked with greater emotional withdrawal and inattention in marijuana-dependent participants.

The marijuana-dependent participants had no other co-occurring addictions or disorders, which helped prove marijuana dependency alone can lead to dopamine dysfunction.

Healthier ways to hack the brain

Many teens abuse marijuana to cope with their problems or simply to feel the pleasure of the high. Instead of judging or reacting with extremes, parents, educators, coaches and family physicians can instead offer alternative ways to feel good.

The neurotransmitter pleasure quartet: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin can be hacked, according to a Huffington Post feature:

  • Serotonin. The antidote to loneliness and depression, serotonin secretion rewards the brain with feelings of significance. According to the National Institutes of Health, even negative attention-seeking avenues like gang and criminal activity foster serotonin Getting some sun for at least 20 minutes daily initiates serotonin production, as the skin absorbs even small amounts of UV rays. Positive reminiscing also releases serotonin. Interestingly, the mind doesn’t distinguish between live or revisited achievements and highlights, so replaying them in the mind’s eye triggers serotonin anew.
  • Yes, this peptide is most known as it relates to breast milk, but it also lives within the brain and is released during moments of love and affection. Interpersonal touch such as hugs from friends or family and receiving gifts raise oxytocin levels.
  • These neurotransmitters are activated in response to pain and stress, usually with exercise. “Runner’s high” and “second wind” are recognized effects of endorphins flooding the system. Laughter, even the anticipation of laughter, triggers endorphin release in the brain.
  • The brain is rewarded with dopamine when goals, desires and needs are recognized. Science has recently enumerated dopamine increases according to particular substances. Discovering your son’s love language and capitalizing on it will motivate him and douse his brain with dopamine as often as you see fit to reinforce his efforts.

The practical solution to a teen’s marijuana use is to provide healthy alternatives to replace bad habits. Punishment without explanation fuels future rebellion. Left to their devices, far more damage can be done to the adolescent’s developing brain than a reduction in dopamine.

White River Academy provides reputable clinical news and practical information for staff and families of our recovering teen boys. Using alternative therapies and modern treatment modalities, we cultivate young men 12-17 with mental disorders, addictions and behavioral issues here at our residential treatment hub, tucked away in Delta, Utah’s Great Basin.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. 

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