Pot Addiction Study Tracks the Brains of People Who Really Enjoy Weed, Maybe Too Much
If you're high right now, you may want to tune in. Try not to giggle. A University Texas at Dallas professor was awarded nearly $2 million dollars to study marijuana addiction for the next five years. We're talking pot, the addiction suffered in silence -- or in inappropriate laughter at anything that sparkles, limps, jokes, cries or spins in circles -- by 10 percent of users. That figure comes from Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of addiction research at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas, who is orchestrating the study.
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She previously found that not everyone's just a social smoker -- some people are genetically predisposed to becoming addicted to marijuana.
With this latest study, she's venturing beyond genetics and into environmental triggers and the brain's "reward system" response, indicative of addiction. It's the nature and nurture of marijuana addiction, which she says is more akin to that of tobacco than heroin. She explains that it's a significant issue given that pot is the most widely used illicit drug and is popular among adolescents, whose brains are still developing.
So, yes, people can be addicted to pot, Filbey maintains, though many people will argue otherwise until blue in the face between long breathy inhales. Furthermore, if you know 10 habitual users, you likely know an addict, according to her statistics.
Filbey's study, for which she is currently seeking participants, will evaluate 100 "chronic heavy marijuana users" and 100 nonusers over the next five years. She expects to find that stressors such as childhood abuse or serious tragedy make people more prone to becoming addicted.
As part of an initial questionnaire, participants will report the things they associate with the pleasure of smoking pot -- Doritos, smoky bongs, Frito pies, one-hitters, burgers, anything they crave when high or, in extreme cases, when wishing they were high. They will be asked to abstain from smoking from three days, then will be shown photos of their most euphoric stoner indulgences, pot paraphernalia and neutral images that are pleasant but not connected to their marijuana use. While they view the images, the blood flow in their brain will be recorded by an imaging machine to track their response to pleasure.
Nonusers will view a similar mix of images, and participants' brains will be imaged, in effect tracing what's most pleasurable to a person and whether they are at risk for addiction based on the way their brain reacts to the images.
"Because we know so little about how addiction manifests in the brain, this five-year research project will study how the brain responds to reward," Filbey says. "The ultimate goal is to characterize predictors of drug dependence in the brain that could lead to better prevention, intervention and treatment for drug addiction."
And no, UTD researchers will not be providing pot -- not even Frito pies. "How the drug is affecting their brain is not my research goal," Filbey says.
The goal is to better understand how and why people become addicted to marijuana to develop better treatment therapies that can also be applied to other addictions. "As you can imagine, when people don't think they're at risk it's basically a trial and error approach," Filbey says. "For those individuals who do become dependent, finding a way to better help them by learning more about the systems that are actually involved is the ultimate goal."
If you're thinking of Frito pie right now, seek help.