Face it: Processing facial emotions might be tough for teens who regularly use cannabis

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A study on cannabis and youths has been released in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of how chronic cannabis consumption affects the developing brain.

The research, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, looked at whether using cannabis as a teen or young adult changes the brain, thereby increasing the chances of affective disorders. The study examined brain imaging of cannabis users with no mental disorders and compared them to non-cannabis users with diagnosed affective disorders.

Cannabis use has been associated with teens and young adults having difficulty with facial emotion processing. A 2014 study found that cannabis users were less likely to be able to correctly determine emotions based on facial expressions. Youths were also found to have changes in the brain anatomy in areas that make it difficult to process emotions, potentially leading to an increase in mood disorders.

“Adolescents and young adults who use cannabis weekly have abnormal brain structure in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), a region involved in processing and regulating emotions,” Kristin Maple, lead researcher on the study and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told PsyPost.

So what does this mean?

Cannabis use has been associated with structural differences in regions associated with facial emotion processing. This basically means that young adults and teens who regularly consume cannabis have volume loss in certain parts of the brain. This loss makes it more difficult for youths to read emotions based on facial expressions, as well as regulating their own emotions.

Emotional affective disorders, such as psychiatric conditions and mood disorders, also alter the brain anatomy.

The recent study found that cannabis consumption in youths resulted in a loss of brain mass in regions responsible for emotional processing. It also noted that teens and young adults, who do not use cannabis and do have diagnosed mood disorders, also have a loss in the same areas of the brain.

What are the study results?

  • regular cannabis use shrinks the smaller left rACC in the brain;
  • rostral anterior cingulate volumes were related to affective processing;
  • gender did not affect the results;
  • emotion recognition was dependent on intensity, with cannabis users less likely to determine subtle emotions from facial expressions; and
  • cannabis users and non-users experienced loss of volume in smaller left rACC.

“The study was cross-sectional, which means we don’t know whether abnormalities in the rACC make someone more likely to use cannabis, or whether regular cannabis use leads to abnormal rACC structure,” explained Maple. “Longitudinal studies such as the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) study are needed to determine whether regular cannabis use actually changes rACC structure, leading to problems with emotional processing.”

The study concludes that more research is needed to draw the connection between cannabis use and mood disorders in youths.

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