Nothing seemed exciting any more. Tim used to love the thrill of reaching the next level in a video game. He always enjoyed winning at basketball, even if it was just a one-on-one with his neighbor. He liked being the first to solve a problem in math class because his teacher gave out prizes. Now, he no longer felt that rush of excitement. The potential rewards were still there, but they didn’t do anything for him.
Tim started using marijuana. As he smokes more and more, it’s altering his brain. Marijuana is changing Tim’s reward system. A recent study discovered this relationship between reward-response and marijuana use. Here’s the scoop.
Just the Facts
If we think we’re about to win money or experience some other exciting event, we feel a “rush.” A peek into our brains would reveal activity in the part that responds to rewards. But a look into the brain of someone using marijuana shows a different picture. The reaction isn’t as big and it gets smaller over time. The more marijuana they use, the smaller the response gets in this part of their brain.
What does this mean? Well, to put it bluntly (no pun intended), it appears Mary Jane steals our rewards. As our brains are altered by the drug, other things seem less exciting. Over time, marijuana use changes our reward system. We no longer experience the rush we used to from fun and exciting events.
As our previously-rewarding activities are blunted, we’re tempted to increase our marijuana use. If other things are dampened, marijuana becomes the source of “reward.” This leads to ever-increasing use and addiction. How? Other studies have proven that when we use high-inducing drugs, our brains have an increased response to cues related to that drug. This response becomes associated with rewarding feelings, which means we begin to associate the drug with reward and crave it more and more - making it hard to stop using.
Stop the Thief
As more states legalize marijuana, many teens are tempted to think of weed as a safe drug. It’s important to realize there are dangerous side effects. This study examines only one of them.
Lead researcher and University of Michigan neuroscientist Mary Heitzeg, Ph.D. explains, “...this study provides evidence that it's affecting the brain in a way that may make it more difficult to stop using it. It changes your brain in a way that may change your behavior, and where you get your sense of reward from."