Study looks at pot’s link to brain disorder

Study results could improve education, prevention and treatment of schizophrenia.

Mike Enright

Uncontrollable laughter and the desire to raid the fridge are often associated with smoking marijuana, but hallucinations, paranoia and other symptoms of schizophrenia might soon be added to that list.

University scientists are undertaking a new study examining a suspected link between marijuana use and the brain disorder.

At the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, investigators are mapping the brains of more than 200 volunteers divided up into groups of smokers and nonsmokers, said center research coordinator Angela Guimaraes.

These two groups are split between people who suffer from schizophrenia and those who don’t, Guimaraes said. There is also an outlier group of 70 children who do not currently have schizophrenia, but may develop it in the future.

According to University psychiatry professor and co-investigator Tonya White, the hypothesis is that for people already genetically at risk for developing schizophrenia, smoking cannabis could in fact trigger the disorder by affecting the part of the brain known as white matter.

Distinct from gray matter – which is essentially responsible for processing information – white matter transfers information from one place to the next.

“White matter is kind of like the super highway of the brain,” she said.

Disruptions or abnormalities in a person’s white matter are often a characteristic of schizophrenia, White said.

“It’s like you’re driving along a highway and you get to a gravel road,” she said.

Previous studies have already shown evidence connecting marijuana use and schizophrenia, White said. The University researchers hope that by proving cannabis also alters white matter, they might be able to reveal how schizophrenia and marijuana are related.

Understanding the correlation, she said, would reap immediate benefits in improving schizophrenia education and prevention, and might even aid in creating new treatments one day – though that might still be a ways off.

“The more we know about the mechanism, the better chance we have in treating it,” White said.

White’s hope is shared by study participant and University sophomore Brenda Smith, who said she is happy to contribute to the cutting-edge research taking place at the center.

Plus the money for volunteers isn’t bad either, she said. Generally, they make about $15 an hour.

“Hopefully, it can benefit a lot of people with schizophrenia,” she said. “I support the research, but the money is a great bonus too, especially for college kids.”

Smith, who is part of the nonsmoking, non-schizophrenic control group, also works at the facility, operating the front desk most afternoons.

Having done previous studies before, Smith said being a volunteer is pretty easy, as long as you’re not afraid of tight spaces.

“You have to be able to stay still and not have problem with claustrophobia,” she said. “It doesn’t take any physical strength.”

Although scans can sometimes take several hours, Smith said passing the time isn’t usually a problem because the machines are often equipped with headphones for listening to music, and some even have televisions for watching movies.

“I’ve definitely fallen asleep before,” she said.