How Does Synthetic Marijuana Affect the Brain?

A recent article from Forbes examined the potential dangers of synthetic weed.

synthetic-potIn recent months, the mainstream, scientific, and marijuana-friendly media has been flooded by horror stories about the dangers of synthetic pot.

The laundry list of symptoms experienced by individuals across the country is both lengthy and shocking: hallucination, paranoia, seizures, cardiac trouble, stroke, kidney, and brain damage, and in at least three cases death. Now, an article on the Forbes site has looked at the impact of synthetic pot on the brain in an attempt to learn why the substance has wreaked such havoc on users.

Both synthetic cannabis and THC, the active ingredient in pot, are agonists, which are chemicals that bind to protein molecules in the brain called receptors and trigger a biological response. Both substances activate the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1), which is located throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems.

But synthetic cannabis is a full agonist, which means that it delivers the maximum amount of biological response to the user, rather than the partial impact of THC. “Its potency can be up to 100 or more times greater that THC,” said Paul Prather, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “It takes much less to produce maximal effects in the brain…and thus not surprising that their use may result in life-threatening adverse effects.”

CB1 receptors are also found in nearly every brain region, which also accounts for the wide array of areas in the body affected by the drug. Episodes of memory loss, seizure, and even psychosis are triggered when the drug activates receptors in the hippocampus, temporal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, respectively, which are the regions of the brain that maintain such responses. Even cardiac and respiratory problems caused by the drug are due to the impact on the brain stem, which monitors those regions.

When the body processes a substance, either through digestion or other chemical means, it produces simple molecules called metabolites. In the case of most drugs, the body deactivates the drug as it metabolizes it, but it appears that some of the metabolites produced by synthetic pot actually bind to the receptor along with the drug itself, essentially doubling the impact. “This isn’t the case with THC,” noted Prather. “The synthetic metabolites seem to retain full activity relative to the parent compound. So the ability of our body to deactivate them is decreased.”

Finally, the basic nature of how the drug is made creates a myriad of possible responses in the user. As law enforcement officials have found, there are hundreds of different kinds of synthetic cannabinoids available in the market; as soon as one variety is banned, the manufacturers alter the contents to keep their product off the radar. The problem is that users have no idea what they’re getting with each brand, or even within individual packets of the same strain.

“How much synthetic cannabis is in there? You have no idea how much you’re getting,” said Prather. Most synthetic concoctions contain more than one cannabinoid, and often contain “hot spots,” areas where the drug is more concentrated than others.

As scientists attempt to gather more data about the impact of synthetic drugs on humans, they also readily admit that they are fighting a war of attrition. “[We] have a poor understanding of how these drugs will affect you, and the public has an even poorer understanding,” said medical toxicologist Jeff Lapoint, MD.

“People think, ‘Oh, it’s just fake marijuana.’ [But] the safety perception is way off. This is not the same thing. You are experimenting with unknown compounds. You’re being a guinea pig. These drugs are a world of difference from THC.” Article Link…

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