This is your brain on pot

Leah Samuel

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Staci Gruber vividly remembers her first hit of marijuana, back when she was in college. It made her so paranoid, she locked herself in a bathroom. She couldn’t decide whether to remain in hiding or to run. But she knew she’d never try pot again.

She didn’t lose interest in the drug, however. Today, she runs the 2-year-old Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery, or MIND, project at McLean Hospital in this suburb of Boston. With cognitive testing and neuroimaging, MIND is conducting a longitudinal study of medical marijuana.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about long-term effects, and that’s what I’m here to find out,” Gruber said.

Gruber, 49, has already made her mark on the field.

She ran a small study, published in 2013, that found teenagers and young adults who smoked marijuana were more likely to exhibit impulsive behavior than their peers and were more likely to have certain changes in the brain’s white matter. A follow-up study found that those changes couldreorganize brain regions associated with inhibitions. This year, Gruber’s research team also found that chronic recreational users of pot had poorer cognitive and executive functioning, particularly if they began using marijuana as teens.

MIND’s current work involves adults who are legally permitted to use marijuana-based products for medical conditions. The researchers are particularly interested in the non-psychoactive components of the marijuana plant, such as cannabidiol, an ingredient in many preparations of medical marijuana.

“We have this one word, marijuana, which we think means every part of the plant, and it doesn’t. The cannabinoids I study aren’t even the ones that get you high,” Gruber said. “But whether you’re for medical marijuana or against it, what we really need is information.”

Marijuana has been studied before. But previous research has focused on the cognitive effects of smoking pot recreationally. Earlier studies of medical marijuana have looked mostly at efficacy — how well it treats symptoms of conditions like multiple sclerosis, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

Gruber and her colleagues, by contrast, are trying to determine the long- and short-term impact of medical marijuana on cognition, brain structure and function, quality of life, sleep, and other clinical measures.

“[This] is a primary concern for patients considering cannabinoid treatment, and it may have implications for public policy,” Gruber said.

Peering into the brain

The first phase of the MIND study is observational. Before patients begin their treatment, Gruber and her colleagues establish a baseline — using imaging, interviews, and task performance tests — to see what patients’ brains look like before they use medical marijuana.

The patients then record how much marijuana they’re using, and how often. At intervals of three, nine, 12, 18, and 24 months, MIND researchers conduct more tests, brain scans, and interviews to measure the effects of the cannabis on their brain structures, cognition, and daily life.

This is the part of Gruber’s research that will be most valuable, said Madeline Meier, a marijuana researcher at the University of Arizona.

“The most important goal right now is to obtain high-quality data on the potential harms and benefits of cannabis,” Meier said.

There are currently 30 study participants; Gruber plans to enroll up to 200. A separate MIND study will examine military veterans who use cannabinoids.

“People drive two to three hours sometimes to get [here for] the study,” Gruber said. “They’re really committed. They really want to know what effect this will have on them.”

As they wait for long-term results, MIND researchers have made a few interim discoveries. They have found, for example, that marijuana could possibly ease symptoms for people with bipolar disorder and that a medication for strokes and Alzheimer’s disease may reverse the cognitive effects of chronic recreational marijuana use.

Gruber’s earlier findings, raising red flags about the dangers of recreational pot smoking, have caught the eye of some activists, like the Seattle-based drug prevention program SAMA, short for Science and Management of Addictions.

“We brought her out here because she had done this great research on adolescents and THC,” said SAMA president Kim Brackett. “We call her ‘the rock star scientist.’ She has a very nice way of translating scientific information in a way that non-scientists can understand, from grandparents to 8-year-olds.”

New interest in funding research

The patients in MIND’s studies bring their own marijuana products, which Gruber’s team analyzes for potency. Studying marijuana can be challenging because the federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, a category reserved for substances with a high potential for addiction and no medicinal value. The DEA recently considered changing that classification — but decided not to.

As a result, the federal government is currently the only approved source of cannabis for clinical trials of medicinal marijuana. “But that’s not what people are using,” said Francesca Filbey, who researches marijuana at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The only way science can study what people do is to let them do it.”

Gruber, Filbey, and several other researchers have formed a consortium, dubbed IDEAA, to pool their research data. Their goal is to make their data widely available, and to get more funding for marijuana research.

“We also hope to do some joint projects — pun intended — that can get funding,” Gruber said. “People are warming up to the idea of marijuana as medicine and funding is opening up.”

For now, Gruber’s project is funded with private donations. The first one came in 2014 when MIND launched with a $500,000 gift to McLean Hospital from Gruber’s wife, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. The two married in 2006, having met when Cornwell visited McLean to research a book.

“She was asking a lot of really good questions,” said Gruber. “Then I found out she wanted to meet and talk more. We went out for dinner and ended up talking about neuroscience until 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Gruber first came to McLean Hospital in the 1990s to work as a lab assistant while completing two undergraduate degrees at schools 10 miles apart. She majored in psychology at Tufts University in suburban Boston. She was also studying vocal performance and jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.

“I spent most of those years just running,” Gruber said, shaking her head with the memory. “You look back and wonder, ‘How did I ever do that? I could never do that now.’ I guess that’s what’s great about being young.”

While in college, Gruber landed an internship at McLean in a lab studying the effects of marijuana on college students. “From there,” she said, with a wait-for-it grin, “I was hooked.”

She continued working at McLean while earning graduate degrees in psychology and experimental cognitive neuroscience at Tufts and at Harvard, where she is now an associate professor.

‘It takes emotion and soul’

While Gruber has always loved music, she’s only recently fully embraced that side of herself.

“When I was little, I used to sing in the closet because I was terrified that I wasn’t any good,” she said. “But then I had this music teacher who said, ‘Hey you, you should have a solo.'”

At the conservatory, she fell in love with jazz singing, which she said resonated with her much more than classical arias.

“If you’re not feeling what you’re doing, what’s the point?” she said. “And that’s true in science, too. You can scientifically break down all these parts of music, like tone and pitch, but it takes emotion and a soul to make it real. In science, you can have all the findings in the world, but if you can’t communicate them, what good are they?”

Today, Gruber has a home studio and a Youtube channel for her music, which includes covers of popular songs along with her own compositions. And she has recorded two CDs.

“It’s okay to not be comfortable 100 percent of the time,” Gruber added. “You have to put yourself out there, to sing and be true and be you.”

That is no more than what she asks of study subjects, she explained.

“The whole point of this is getting people to tell the truth, sometimes about illegal activity, so they have to trust you,” she said. “I don’t know that I would be able to do studies like this if I couldn’t connect with people.”

 


How to Smoke Weed: A Beginner’s Guide

In case you’re interested..JK Simmons Smoking Weed

When first smoking, feel free to giggle your ass off and gorge on Oreos. But please, if you continue, learn some dignity.

The decidedly uphill battle to legalize marijuana, medical or otherwise, is likely to be with us for decades to come. Legislating morality in our country (and in human societies down through the ages) has always been fraught. As we have seen, even if marijuana is legal in some localities, that doesn’t mean the feds won’t shut down licensed operations, as I discovered woefully when the owners of my own dear collective in Malibu, California, were forced to pack up and flee after receiving a threatening letter from Obama’s U.S. Attorney General’s office. (Has anyone looked into the reason for our seemingly liberal president’s hard line on pot? Do you think it has something to do with being a father of teenage daughters who attend a pricey prep school in Washington, D.C.? Everybody knows how hardy those rich preppies like to party.)

Meanwhile, glassy eyes around the nation are turned toward Colorado’s legalization experiment. Given the choice between a drunk (and impaired) asshole and a pleasant stoner… Well, put it this way: If my college-bound kid was to ask my advice on the subject, I’d tell him I prefer he smoked weed in lieu of drinking. Watch one episode of Real World. That’s what our kids are emulating, people. (Of course I’d also tell him to watch his butt — people still get busted for simple marijuana possession every day in America.)

There’s not a lot to know to get you started, and I am not here advocating the use of illegal substances. But if you happen to be interested…

1. Indica vs. Sativa

Learn the difference. Indica makes you sleepy; it’s more of a body high, good for pain, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping — you’ll likely nod out a couple hours after smoking. Sativa is a more upbeat, artistic, and cerebral high. It sparks the imagination and energizes you directly after smoking and will keep you awake if you smoke too close to bedtime. Most stoners remember the difference in a somewhat anti-intuitive way. Sativa starts with an S = NOT sleepy.

2. Just Say No to Blunts

The hip-hop generation has popularized the use of tobacco leaf rolling papers or hollowed-out/re-rolled Swisher Sweets as the delivery device of choice for weed. Not only can this lead to an addiction to nicotine (every heroin user I’ve ever known agrees that nicotine is the hardest drug to kick). It also kills the taste of the myriad delicious strains now on the market. Nobody would ever mix a shot of red wine in a glass with ice and Coke, would they? [Eds. note: Okay, we sometimes do that.]

3. Know Your Equipment

Some people swear by vaporizers, which eliminate the intense skunky smell (good for dorm rooms and public spots) and the inhalation of smoke (possibly but not medically proven to adversely affect the lungs). However, the vape high is considerably less intense and shorter lasting. While a bong can be unruly and downright disgusting, a small water pipe can fulfill the same purpose, filtering the more noxious elements of combustion. For cleaning, isopropyl alcohol cuts resin nicely. Remember the container full of combs soaking in blue liquid on the barber’s counter? I do the same with my glass pipes.

4. Giggling Man is an Oxymoron

The first time you smoke, feel free to giggle your ass off, munch down on Double Stuf Oreos and barbecue potato chips, and marvel at the new found intensity of movies, music, sex, et al. The primary effect of weed is to enhance the sensory enjoyment of everything around you. But please, if you continue to smoke, learn some dignity. Conquer the munchies and the giggles. Concentrate instead on these newly opened doors of perception.

5. Expectations

If pot makes you feel paranoid, it’s because it affords the user a slightly different view of him or herself. When you’re high, your words echo discreetly in your own coconut, your point of view is slightly off center from normal, affording you a kind of fleeting glimpse of yourself and your actions that you might not ordinarily have. Weed invites self-observation, which is not for everyone. Even though it should be.

Father And Son Find Mysterious Sphere Floating Off Australian Coast

When Mark Watkins headed out for a fishing trip off the coast of Western Australia, he’d hoped to come home with dinner. Instead, he came home with one heck of a story.

That’s because, as he and his father drove their boat through the choppy morning waves, they happened upon an amazingly bizarre sight. At first they thought it was a boat, then, a hot air balloon. The truth, however, was even crazier.

When they first spotted it floating above the waves, Mark Watkins and his father thought it was an overturned boat. As they got closer they thought perhaps it was a hot air balloon. Then they realized the truth.

Facebook / Mark Watkins