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Halifax researchers examine impact cannabis has on developing brains

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A research team out of Halifax is leading a study that examines the impact cannabis consumption can have on developing brains.

The study particularly focuses on those with underlying mental health disorders, such as early psychosis.

“We know that in individuals with psychosis there’s some problems with connectivity. We think it’s made worse if these particular people use cannabis,” Dr. Candice Crocker said, an assistant psychiatry professor at Dalhousie University and a member of the research team.

The research team from the Nova Scotia Early Psychosis Program. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

“So, it may be something particular to them but we don’t know, that’s why there’s healthy people in this study,” she said.

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The study is led by a team at the Nova Scotia Early Psychosis Program [NSEPP] and funded by grant money from both the national and provincial level.

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Dr. Philip Tibbo is the principal investigator and says the ultimate goal is to empower youth and young adults to make informed decisions about their cannabis consumption.

“Our intent of the research is not to stigmatize cannabis and cannabis use. It’s really to understand that there are risks involved and we need to know what those risks are,” Tibbo said.

“So that when individuals in the community are using cannabis, they’re making an informed decision to use.”

Tibbo says psychosis includes a wide range of symptoms from hallucinations and delusions to lack of motivation and emotions.

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As with any health challenge, he says the earlier a diagnosis comes, the better chance of there being improved outcomes.

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“Psychosis in itself can have pretty significant costs to the individual, to the family, to society and especially because the age of onset is late adolescence, early adulthood. Which is a very significant developmental time point for humans,” Tibbo said.

Tibbo says the team is at the midway point of the study, which includes two cohorts of people: those living with early-phase psychosis and those who don’t.

“We’re looking at the role of cannabis with respect to development of early phase psychosis but in addition we’re also looking at, within that healthy, controlled population that don’t have psychosis — and the role that cannabis can play in brain maturation, and brain structure, and function,” Tibbo said.

Crocker says brain imaging is part of the study to document the changes cannabis consumption can have on white matter.

“There’s a possibility that if we show changes to a part of the brain called white matter, which is the point of the MRI portion of the study. There’s a possibility that we can repurpose some of the drugs used for multiple sclerosis to help treat some of the deficits,” Crocker said.

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The research team is still recruiting healthy volunteers between the ages of 18-35 who consume cannabis.

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Tibbo says the team will follow participants for a one-year period and research is being done at two locations in Canada.

“The main site is here in Halifax but we also have a secondary site in London, Ontario,” he said.

Tibbo says the two-site approach is to allow for a larger sample size of the population with quicker results.

Both Crocker and Tibbo say the study doesn’t aim to stigmatize cannabis use. It aims to improve the health outcomes of youth and young adults who use cannabis while their brains are in the late stages of development.

“There may be individuals who just even a little bit of use, there may be difficulties with that, negative outcomes. So, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, is what are those significant risk factors and how we can bring that into population and get them informed on it,” Tibbo said.