Although consuming cannabis is relatively benign for adults, chronic marijuana use can do lasting damage to the developing brains of adolescents. But that could change soon thanks to a pair of Canadian researchers who have found a way to reverse the ill effects of THC on minors.

Underage cannabis consumption exposes youths to the risk of developing schizophrenia-like symptoms and other psychological disorders that can linger long after the high is gone. Scientists have struggled to determine the cause of those conditions until today, when Steven Laviolette and Justine Renard of Western University in London, Ontario published a groundbreaking study that could reverse those disorders. 

“What is important about this study is that not only have we identified a specific mechanism in the prefrontal cortex for some of the mental health risks associated with adolescent marijuana use, but we have also identified a mechanism to reverse those risks,” Laviolette — a professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry — said via press release.

According to the study, exposure to THC changes the activity of the GABA neurotransmitter in the adolescent brain. “GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and plays a crucial role in regulating the excitatory activity in the frontal cortex, so if you have less GABA, your neuronal systems become hyperactive leading to behavioural changes consistent with schizophrenia,” explained Renard — a post-doctoral fellow at Western.

By reactivating the GABA neurotransmitter with a new medication, Laviolette and Renard's team reversed the neuronal and behavioral effects of THC in rats. But their work could also help people by providing them with medicine to treat their symptoms or to prevent their brains from being impacted by the negative effects of THC.

“What this could mean is that if you are going to be using marijuana, in a recreational or medicinal way, you can potentially combine it with compounds that boost GABA to block the negative effects of THC,” added Laviolette, who is mindful of the timeliness of this breakthrough given the federal government's plan to legalize recreational cannabis use by July 1, 2018.

The research team also believes that combining these GABA-boosting drugs with cannabinoids derived from marijuana could develop safer treatments for mental health disorders such as addiction, depression and anxiety. So Laviolette and Renard's work not only makes marijuana safer for our brains, but could also help us enjoy better mental health through cannabis.