14.06.2018 Exposure of unborn babies or children to cannabis can leave their brain permanently impaired 

Cannabis und Schwangerschaft

Smoking cannabis and taking certain medications containing cannabinoids during pregnancy can cause irreversible damage to the unborn baby’s brain. This can result in impaired cognitive and motor skills as well as psychological illnesses. At the CINP World Congress of the International College of Neuropsychopharmacology, which starts on 16 June, 3,500 neuropharmacologists will be discussing the effects of substances, such as cannabinoids, and medications on the brain.

The legalisation of cannabis is a topic of public debate. “Neuropharmacologists are looking at the effects of different cannabinoids on the brain,” explained Prof. Tibor Harkany from the Department of Molecular Neurosciences at the University of Vienna. He will be talking about the effects of cannabis on babies, young children and adolescents at the neuropharmacology congress in Vienna.

Irreversible long-term damage to babies and young children
“While the effects of psychoactive cannabinoids, chiefly tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are believed to be temporary and reversible in adulthood, these substances can have very serious and life-long debilitating effects when taken during the development of the brain,” Prof. Harkany cautioned. “Brain development usually continues into the early to mid-20s. During fetal development, significant developmental processes take place in the brain in short periods of time, sometimes in a matter of hours. These can be disrupted significantly by THC if coincidently present, leading to irreversible defects,” explained Prof. Harkany. The damage caused by a mother’s consumption of cannabis during pregnancy depends significantly on the phase of brain development that the unborn child is going through at the time, as well as the type and amount of cannabis consumed. Critical building blocks for motor function and the reward system are laid out already in the first trimester, while the second trimester sees the development of cognitive areas, which are particularly sensitive to THC from cannabis. The consequences for children range from impairment of cognitive and motor functions – such as speech, intelligence, concentration and memory – to disordered psychological development. 

Pregnancy and cannabis: damage possible in all parts of a baby’s brain
The underlying problem here is THC, which fits one of the most abundant receptors (the cannabinoid receptor type 1) in our brains like a key in a lock, meaning that it can influence almost all parts of the human brain. “In fact, the job of cannabinoid receptors during our brain’s development is to regulate how nerve cells connect to one another. As THC molecules bind to these receptors, physiological functions are modified to such an extent that important pathways between nerve cells are not or incorrectly created during phases of intense brain development,” the neurobiologist explained.  

Beware of medication during pregnancy
“As a result, it is imperative that pregnant women do not consume THC – this applies to smoking as well as taking medication containing the substance,” Prof. Harkany suggests. THC can be found in some anti-nausea medications, for instance. Accordingly, medicine should only be taken with the consent of a suitably qualified specialist and by carefully weighing the cost/benefit ratio for mother and child.

Cannabis consumption can trigger mental illness in teenagers
“Children and adolescents encounter another wave of danger when they start to experiment with cannabis,” Prof Harkany noted. If a person has a genetic predisposition for certain mental illnesses or there are any other sensitising factors consuming cannabis can trigger them. In many cases, children and adolescents are not aware of increased personal risk. The spectrum of mental disorders triggered in this way ranges from psychosis to schizophrenia.

Cannabidiol used to treat epilepsy
However, the cannabis plant should not be entirely demonised, as apart from THC – which can have a detrimental effect on brain development – a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, cannabidiol, is seen as an effective drug to treat certain neurological disorders and is also considered suitable for children. “In the case of epilepsy and other disorders, cannabidiol protects nerve cells from becoming damaged even when excessive communication occurs between them. This reduces the progressive damage to the brain without – as far as we know – substantial negative effect on its development,” Prof. Harkany concluded.

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Prof. Tibor Harkany (c) Ruona 13
Cannabis and pregnancy (c) IAKW-AG, iStock, ruizluquepaz
Pregnancy (c) IAKW-AG, iStock,AndreyPopov


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