Indiana University announced this week that neuroscientists in the IU Gill Center for Biomolecular Science received a $2 million grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse to study the effects of cannabis use in adolescents ages 12 to 14.

Researchers plan to use mice to study the impact of adolescent cannabis use in order to develop therapies to treat any adverse effects in humans. Mice with diverse genetic backgrounds will be studied, as well as both male and female mice, in order to mimic human diversity and to see if there are sex-dependent differences in THC effects.

The neuroscientists will also study the underlying molecular changes that account for behavior changes, such as working memory deficits.

“This is a significant public health concern,” Hui-Chen Lu, director of the Gill Center and a professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said in a public statement. “Today’s cannabis strains are being bred for increased THC content. It’s very different and much riskier than the more traditional strains used in the past. There’s an urgent need to understand the effects of these new strains.”

“One of the functions of the prefrontal cortex is working memory, as well as processes like planning and impulse control,” added Ken Mackie, chair of the Gill Center and a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “That part of the brain is still developing in adolescence, and developing brain structures are particularly vulnerable to environmental impacts, such as drug use or stress.”

Lu and Mackie will also study CBD, which earlier work from IU Bloomington suggests might protect from potential negative effects from THC. The researchers plan to study whether CBD has any potentially harmful effects on its own and how it could protect adolescents’ developing brains from any adverse consequences of THC exposure.

“Our brain is not wired precisely from the beginning,” Lu said. “To properly develop, it needs to combine inputs from our environment, our experiences and our interactions with others. In particular, a properly configured prefrontal cortex is very important for goal-directed behavior and social interactions.

“If cannabis disrupts prefrontal cortex development during this critical period, the impact can be huge and long lasting. To help these individuals, we need to figure out which therapies will work best based on our understanding of what happens in the brains of young adolescents using cannabis.”

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