This Week in Health: Marijuana alters key brain structures in casual users

The health effects of marijuana
Even casual marijuana use may alter key structures in brain.
Credit: iStockphoto

Marijuana alters key brain structures in casual users

Location of study: U.S.

Study subjects: 40 college students in the Boston area aged 18 to 25

Results: Can casual marijuana use have lasting effects on the brain? A recent study suggests that even light, recreational pot smoking can lead to significant changes in the regions of the brain related to emotion, motivation and reward. When compared to non-users, young adults who reported smoking marijuana once a week exhibited differences in the size, shape and structure of these brain regions. These irregularities were more extreme in participants who smoked pot more frequently.

Significance: According to the study, these affected brain regions have been broadly linked to addiction. “It also is possible that the brain is adapting to marijuana exposure and that these new connections may encourage further marijuana use,” Dr. Anne Blood, a co-senior author from the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, said in a statement. Similar findings have come out of previous studies focusing on heavy, long-term marijuana users. This new study is one of the first to look at the drug’s effects among people who only smoke casually. Researchers say the findings raise concerns about the long-term impact of legalizing marijuana.

Experts find no proof that inducing labor causes autism

Location of study: U.S.

Results: After careful review, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has found no link between labor induction and autism. Experts say that the collective research at this time is not enough to suggest a causal relationship. “Our opinion was stimulated by a study done last year that showed a potential association between the use of drugs like Pitocin to start labor and autism in children,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ecker, the ACOG’s chair of the Committee on Obstetric Practice. The organization deemed the available evidence surrounding the use of oxytocin to bring on labor as inconsistent. The group also found limitations in study design and conflicting findings in other research.

Significance: The concerns over labor induction and autism picked up considerable steam last year following a study suggesting that women who used labor-inducing drugs to stimulate contractions may be more likely to deliver a child with autism. Researchers from that study were unclear about the nature of the association. They were also unaware of the circumstances that required labor induction or augmentation to begin with. According to Ecker, the ACOG very clearly recommends that current practices not be changed because evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship is not there. He added that cutting back on labor inductions, which are an important part of patient care, would almost certainly raise cesarean section rates.

Nasal spray protects against any strain of flu

Location of study: Scotland

Study subjects: Mice

Results: A developmental nasal spray may be able to prevent infection from any strain of the flu. Upon influenza infection, viruses attach to receptors in the throat and nose. The in-the-works nasal spray works by coating these receptors with engineered proteins so that viruses are unable to attach to them. In recent animal studies, a single intranasal dose protected mice from lethal influenza exposure. Researchers report that not only did the mice avoid infection; they also produced antibodies against the virus.

Significance: The novel spray is particularly exciting as it holds the potential for more far-reaching applications. Developing a new vaccine is a complex and often lengthy process that typically takes six months from start to finish. Researchers hope the new approach will eventually be used as a first-line protection against pandemic strains while new vaccines are being developed. “We believe that our approach has the potential to be used as a preventative against any current and new virus that emerges, such as H5N1, H7N9 and the very recent H10N8,” lead researcher Garry Taylor, a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said in a statement.

Diabetes rates soar, obesity partly to blame

Location of study: U.S.

Study subjects: Over 43,000 adults

Results: Cases of diabetes and pre-diabetes have almost doubled over the last two decades. Experts say obesity is likely behind the increase. Since 1988, diabetes went up from 6 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. population. Similarly, cases of pre-diabetes doubled during this time. Another key discovery is that the condition is not distributed equally in the population (the study revealed major racial disparities). A much higher prevalence of diabetes was observed among African Americans and Mexican Americans. These populations also had poorer rates of glucose control. Researchers say this is particularly concerning since ethnic minorities are at higher risk for diabetes complications.

Significance: There are currently 21 million adults with diabetes in the United States, but the results from the study weren’t all bad. On the upside, the number of diabetes cases that are undiagnosed has actually gone down. To determine this, investigators looked at glucose levels from the previous three months to make this estimation. It revealed that just 11 percent of diabetes cases nationwide are undiagnosed. “This suggests we’re doing better with screening and diagnosis overall,” said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Selvin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Content provided by ZipTrials, a trusted source for the most up-to-date medical news and trending health stories. 



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