People against cannabis legalization sure do love trotting out the old argument that “cannabis causes schizophrenia.” But, thanks to recent scientific findings, that sad old pony of an argument won’t be trotting around for very much longer. Schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by loss of touch with reality, hallucinations like hearing voices, haphazard speech or behavior, and a general lack of drive affects approximately 3.5 million people in the United States and is one of the leading causes of disability.
Cannabis and schizophrenia may not have the causative relationship we once thought, but they do have a mysterious physiological relationship. In an interview with Psychiatry Advisor, Matthijs Bossong, PhD, of the Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, revealed that patients with schizophrenia have enhanced levels of endogenous cannabinoids in both their blood and cerebrospinal fluid—plus increased levels of cannabinoid receptors in their brains. In other words, schizophrenic people have higher levels of internally created cannabinoids (like our pals THC and CBD) and more places in their brains in which to receive them. (WHOA.)
The connection between schizophrenia and cannabis just gets weirder…. “For many brain functions, such as memory, executive function, and emotional processing, we found striking similarities between cannabis-intoxicated healthy volunteers and non-intoxicated schizophrenia patients,” Bossong added. So, wait—when it comes to memory, reasoning, and emotions, schizophrenic people’s brains act similarly to brains high on cannabis? Call me Joey Lawrence, because WHOA again.
So, what happens when someone with schizophrenia becomes intoxicated with actual cannabis? A 2006 study found that patients who self-medicated with cannabis reported fewer negative symptoms than those who did not. Less avolution (general lack of drive to perform activities or pursue meaningful goals) and fewer apathy symptoms were detected in patients with schizophrenia who used cannabis than in those patients who did not partake.
And the proof is in the pudding—which, in this case, is a “double-blind, randomized, clinical trial comparing the effects of cannabidiol with those of the antipsychotic medication amisulpride,” performed by scientists at the University of California, Irvine. Their findings (which were reported in 2012 in Translational Psychiatry) show that although both treatments brought about significant clinical improvement, the CBD treatment resulted in fewer side effects like motor impairment and weight gain.
But what if you have schizophrenia and don’t want to medicate at all? Americans are taught to see schizophrenia as a disorder, but in other cultures it’s seen as a blessing. Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford researcher and anthropologist trained in psychology, conducted a study that looked at schizophrenia patients in California, Ghana, and India, and discovered that people experience the symptoms of schizophrenia very differently in different cultures.
Many of the subjects from Ghana and India reported mainly positive experiences from the voices in their heads, finding them to be playful, magical, sometimes even entertaining. But not a single American found their auditory hallucinations to be any kind of pleasant. One American participant described the voices in their brain to be “like torturing people, to take their eye out with a fork, or cut someone’s head and drink their blood, really nasty stuff.” WHOA again.
From this research, Luhrmann observed that the “harsh, violent voices so common in the West may not be an inevitable feature of schizophrenia.” (Thank goodness!) These exciting findings can also be applied to help patients in a clinical setting. One new approach attempts to improve individuals’ relationships with the voices in their head by giving the voices names and building relationships with them in order to make them seem less scary.
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If you are someone with schizophrenia or schizophrenia-like symptoms, talk to your doctor about cannabinoid therapy and how you can become friends with your voices. There may not be one true “cure” to schizophrenia, but thanks to these exciting new findings, there is definitely hope.