Alcohol is one of the most widely-used and recreational drugs in the world. The same thing can be said of cannabis, but there are a few huge differences between cannabis and alcohol- one of them being the level of social acceptance, and the other being its legality.

But which one is better for your health?

Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder reviewed existing image data showing effects of alcohol and cannabis on the human brain.

Their findings linked alcohol consumption to long-term changes in the structure of white and grey matter in the brain. Meanwhile, the studies also showed that cannabis use does not have significant long-term effects on brain structure.

Rachel Thayer of the Department of Psychology and Neural Science at the University of Colorado Boulder and her colleagues recently reported their results.

An estimated 22.2 million people in the United States have used cannabis over the past month, making it the “most commonly used illicit drug” in the country, and more and more states are legalizing cannabis for both therapeutic and recreational purposes. In addition, Canada legalized recreational cannabis across the country and Canadians can now legally buy marijuana via government mail orders- which are basically online coffee shops.

As a result of the changing legislation in Canada, the USA, and beyond, scientists have tried to find out more about how cannabis can bring health benefits and how much harm it can cause to the person using it.

What are some health benefits and harms of cannabis?

‘Medical News Today’ presented studies last year that link cannabis use with a higher risk of psychosis in adolescents, while other studies stated that the drug is “worse than cigarettes” in terms of the cardiovascular system.

On the other side of the coin, scientists have found that cannabinoids – which are active compounds in cannabis – can help prevent migraines, and recent research has linked cannabis use to increased sex drive.

With the growing numbers of countries legalizing cannabis, more and more scientists are investigating the potential harms and benefits it can bring. However, a new study suggests that alcohol is far more harmful when it comes to brain health.

Cannabis versus alcohol: what’s worse?

In this latest study, Thayer and her colleagues tried to find out more about the impact of cannabis on the brain. Study co-author Kent Hutchison, PhD, from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, notes that studies have so far produced mixed results.

He said:

“When you look at these studies from earlier years, you see that one study reports that cannabis use involves a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus. Other studies say that cannabis use is associated with cerebellar changes…

The problem with them is that there is no consistency in all these studies in terms of actual changes in the brain structures.”

In order to close the gap in this inconsistency, scientists conducted a new analysis of existing brain imaging data. They looked at how the use of cannabis affects white matter and grey mass in the brain, and how it compares with another “drug” we have become accustomed to: alcohol.

Grey matter is a tissue on the surface of the brain, which consists mainly of bodies of nerve cells. White matter is a deeper brain tissue that contains ground nerve fibres, which are branches protruding from the nerve cells that transmit electrical impulses to other cells and tissues.

The study notes that any reduction in the size of white or grey matter caused by a substance or loss of integrity can lead to many brain dysfunctions.

As Hutchison said:

“We have known for decades that alcohol is bad for the brain. In the case of cannabis, we know little about it.”

The study included brain images of 853 adults aged 18 to 55 and 439 teenagers aged 14 to 18 years. All participants were differentiated in terms of alcohol and cannabis use. After analyzing the data, researchers found that alcohol consumption – especially in adults who had been drinking for many years – was associated with a reduction in the volume of grey matter, as well as a reduction in the integrity of the white matter.

However, cannabis use does not seem to affect the structure of grey or white matter in both teenagers and adults.

Based on these findings, researchers believe that drinking alcohol can be much more harmful to brain health than using cannabis.

“While cannabis can also have some negative consequences, it is definitely not even approaching the negative effects of drinking alcohol.”- Kent Hutchison.

 

Featured image courtesy of Greendorphin.