THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Its structure is very similar to a chemical called anandamide, which occurs naturally in the brain. Anandamide is a kind of neurotransmitter called an endogenous cannabinoid, meaning it’s a cannabis-like chemical made by your brain. Anandamide affects various brain areas, including those related to pleasure, memory, concentration, coordination, time perception, and sensory perception by binding to specific cannabinoid receptors located in those areas. Since THC has a structure similar to anandamide, it can bind to receptors in those areas of the brain and activate them. When your brain works normally, there is a lot of complex coordination between different parts, orchestrated by different neurotransmitters and electrical impulses. When you use marijuana, that coordination is disrupted by THC activating many parts of the brain at once. Think of the difference between playing the piano and smashing your palms on the keys and that approximates the difference between a normally functioning endocannabinoid system and an endocannabinoid system under the influence of THC. Because there are cannabinoid receptors in many areas of the brain, THC can have many different effects. Some of the affected brain areas are the amygdala, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, the hypothalamus, the neocortex, and the basal ganglia. The diversity of these areas is why people have so many different reactions to marijuana. Alcohol by comparison mainly affects the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum, impairing judgment, memory, and coordination, respectively. This is why alcohol affects everyone in pretty much the same way. With marijuana, however, one person may feel the effects primarily in the hypothalamus, making him hungry, while someone else might feel the effects in the amygdala, making her anxious. Many people feel the effects in the nucleus accumbens, which produces euphoria when overstimulated. Typically, these effects are temporary, lasting only a few hours at most. Marijuana is also not as addictive as many drugs. Only about nine percent of regular users will become seriously addicted. However, marijuana can have lasting negative effects on the brain, especially for young users. Teenage brains are still developing, and brains aren’t physically mature until about age 25. Regular marijuana use has been shown to lower IQ in adolescents. It may also precipitate symptoms of schizophrenia in people with a genetic risk for the condition. Perhaps most importantly, early marijuana use increases the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder later on.
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