Scientific research into the effects and applications of cannabis is booming, especially where serious psychiatric disorders are concerned. In the case of schizophrenia, the latest evidence indicates that cannabis may both aggravate and ease the symptoms of the disorder.
This is due largely to two factors: first, the complex causes and symptoms of schizophrenia are still not fully understood, and second, the effects of cannabis on a schizophrenic brain appear to depend heavily on exactly which cannabinoids are actually being consumed.
Modern science is still inconclusive about how and why schizophrenia takes root. It most often, though not always, appears in late adolescence, and has been found to result from both genetic and environmental factors. To complicate things further, its symptoms can manifest in a multitude of ways. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the psychotic hallucinations and delusions most often associated with the disorder are only one small part of the symptoms people with schizophrenia may experience; other symptoms can include difficulty with making decisions, retaining information, and/or expressing emotion.
Research into how cannabis affects people with schizophrenia have thus far focused largely on the distinctly different effects of THC and CBD, two of the most widely recognizable chemical compounds found in cannabis. Though research into the effects of different cannabinoids is still ongoing, we do now know that THC is responsible for the mind-altering effects of cannabis, whereas CBD is not psychoactive and is associated with cannabis’ pain-relieving and relaxant properties (for more information about the effects of these cannabinoids, check out our post CBD v. THC: What’s Right for Me?). Of course, this spectrum of cannabinoid effects exists for healthy brains as much as disordered ones, but understanding the differences between the two is essential for understanding how they interact with schizophrenia.
Almost ten years ago, a study in the Netherlands found that THC consumption could worsen psychotic symptoms in adults with schizophrenia — and just this July, researchers at Tel Aviv University published findings which assert that THC use can trigger schizophrenia in adolescents who are already genetically at risk for the disorder. However, researchers at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute in Australia have also recently reported encouraging results regarding CBD, adding yet another context to the growing body of evidence supporting CBD’s medicinal applications. Through both a comprehensive review of previously published CBD research as well as a model of their own, they found that CBD dosing could have a positive impact on schizophrenic patients’ cognitive function and facility with social behaviors. In addition to these benefits, the researchers delved into its potential restorative properties for individuals with a wide range of disorders beyond schizophrenia as well, asserting that CBD may be able to ease the difficult symptoms of everything from Alzheimers to cerebral malaria.
As optimistic as this may sound, it is important to remember that these studies are still in the beginning stages. The intricacies of how and why these cannabinoids interact with schizophrenia in the way they do are still largely unknown, even as we can observe and interpret their effects. Additionally, two out of the three above studies were conducted with rodents, not humans. While extrapolation between the two species can be productive, and the lessening legal pressure around the world is enabling an increased amount of scientific research and innovation, there is a long way to go before we reach a full understanding of both cannabis’ effects and schizophrenia as a whole.