The Teen Brain on Weed

April 24, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

A brain

It is now legal to use marijuana (recreationally and/or medically) in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia, and as more places debate legalizing the substance, more people are asking about its consequences on human health. There are many myths and misconceptions out there, but this is what science has to say about the subject.

As with all substances, the health effects depend on the potency, amount, and a person’s age. An independent scientific committee in the United Kingdom evaluated how harmful various drugs were based on 16 criteria and ranked heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine as the most harmful drugs to individuals using them, and ranked alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine as the drugs that cause the most harm to others. Marijuana ranks eighth, with slightly more than one-quarter the harm of alcohol.

Short-term use is associated with impaired short-term memory, making it difficult to learn and retain information while under the influence. Short-term use can also impair motor coordination, interfering with tasks such as driving. The overall risk of an accident doubles if a person drives soon after using marijuana. In comparison, those with blood alcohol levels above the legal limit are five times more likely to have an accident, and the combination of alcohol and marijuana is higher than either one alone.

Long-term or heavy use is associated with diminished life satisfaction and achievement overall. At high doses, marijuana can cause paranoia and psychosis, and long-term marijuana use increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or other chronic psychotic illnesses. Nine percent of all marijuana users, or 2.7 million people, develop an addiction to it. That figure jumps to 25-50 percent for those who use marijuana daily, and 17 percent of people who begin using marijuana as adolescents become addicted. Cannabis withdrawal syndrome is real and includes symptoms of irritability, sleep disturbance, dysphoria, craving, and anxiety.

Adults who occasionally use marijuana do so with little to no risk, but adolescent brains are not fully developed, making them more vulnerable to the adverse effects of marijuana. Using marijuana during adolescence can alter brain development, causing impaired cognition and lower IQs. This is probably because the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, affects the brain’s ability to make connections between neurons in certain regions of the brain. Adolescent marijuana users also have a smaller hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory, and a less active prefrontal cortex, which is important in cognitive tasks such as planning and problem-solving.

Since acute marijuana intoxication can impair cognitive functions for days, students who use marijuana may function well below their natural abilities, causing academic difficulties. High school dropouts do report higher marijuana usage than their peers. Some evidence suggests that these cognitive impairments could be long-lasting or permanent in long-term users who started at younger ages, which can impact their abilities to succeed academically and professionally.

There is no clear association between long-term marijuana use and any deadly disease, although chronic marijuana smokers have increased rates of respiratory infections and pneumonia and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The effects of marijuana on a developing embryo and the effects of second-hand or third-hand marijuana smoke have not been well-studied, but as marijuana legalization continues to be an issue the science behind it will as well.

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Breaking Bad at the Pharmacy

April 25, 2014

By Medical Discovery News


Drug abuse is not confined to street drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. America is facing an epidemic of prescription drug abuse, particularly with pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants. In 2010, 7 million Americans abused prescription drugs every month.

People are able to abuse such medications by taking medicines prescribed for someone else, using them in excess, or by taking them in a way not prescribed, such as crushing and snorting pills or liquefying and injecting them to hasten the effects needed to produce a high.

Depressants, sedatives, and tranquilizers are abused by more than 2.5 million people each month. The mood-altering drug Zoloft ranks sixth on the list of abused pharmaceuticals and earned more than $500 million in sales. It is prescribed for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. The 10th most abused prescription drug is Xanax (alprazolam), called Xany, blue footballs, Xanybars, or just bars on the street. Xanax had sales of almost $275 million in 2012. This drug is intended to treat anxiety or panic disorders. It is often abused because it creates what is described as a sense of wellbeing, but can be fatal when abused.

The sleeping pills Ambien and Lunesta are the fourth and seventh most abused drugs from the pharmacy, with sales of $670 and $450 million respectively in 2012. Both are used to treat difficulties falling or staying asleep but can produce hallucinations when abused. Tom Brokaw of NBC News inadvertently experienced these symptoms from Ambien while covering the last presidential campaign.    

Drugs used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also widely abused, usually by students seeking a way to stay awake and intensely focus on a project or test. Other than marijuana and synthetic marijuana, Adderall is the most-used drug by high school seniors and the eighth most abused prescription drug in the country. Its sales top $400 million. Other stimulants of the central nervous system, Ritalin and Concerta, are the third and fifth most abused pharmaceuticals. Stimulants can have significant side effects like irregular heartbeat, heart failure, seizures, and behavioral changes like paranoia or hostility. 

Some of the most abused drugs are opioid analgesics used clinically as pain relievers. These drugs are involved in 75 percent of all pharmaceutical overdose deaths – more than 16,000 people a year. An estimated 5.1 million people abuse these drugs each month. This included the most abused pharmaceutical drug – Oxycontin. In 2012, sales of this drug reached about $2.5 billion. The second most abused prescription drug, Suboxone, is used as a maintenance treatment for opioid dependence. Its sales brought in almost $1.4 billion. Another opioid, Opana ER (oxymorphone), ranks ninth on the list of most abused pharmaceuticals and is used to treat severe and chronic pain. It earned $300 million in sales in 2012.

Prescription drugs like these are a double-edged sword. They do a lot of good for a lot of people, and many genuinely need them to function. New regulations that govern the use of these drugs, while annoying for people who need them, help limit some of the abusive behavior of those breaking bad.

Dark Secrets of Medicine Shows

Aug. 23, 2013

By Medical Discovery Shows

It’s hard to believe that people used to drink snake oil as a “universal remedy,” or rely on a patent medicine called Mugwumps to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet, from colonial times to the 1900s, people would unquestionably turn to such “cures.” Patent medicines were sold directly to a patient from the manufacturer without a prescription through mail order, in shops, and in traveling medicine shows. They were trademarked (which is not the same as today’s patenting) by the seller yet untested and unregulated, and as such, rarely worked as advertised. Eventually, people even used the term snake oil salesman as a synonym for a fraudster.

Among the early patent medicines to arrive in America were Daffy’s Elixir Salutis for “colic and griping,” Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops and John Hooper’s Female Pills. These and many other remedies were available for just about any ailment and often made outlandish claims of their effectiveness. An interesting study revisited these patent medicines to discover just what they contained and if they could have lived up to the hype.

At a meeting of the American Chemical Society, the research team headed by Dr. Mark Benvenuto presented their examination of patent medicines from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. They tested 50 of the hundreds of such medicines in the museum’s Health Aids collection.

Patent medicines were produced long before the advent of the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations and testing standards. Many patent medicines were based on vegetable extracts along with abundant amounts of alcohol. Others contained dangerous substances such as opium, cocaine, heroin, mercury, silver, arsenic, or even the radioactive element thorium. Sadly, some of these potent concoctions were used to treat babies for colic or fussiness, sometimes with tragic results. 

But some were found to contain some substances that could actually be healthy. For example, Dr. F.G. Johnson’s French Female pills contained iron, calcium, and zinc, all of which are common supplements taken by people today. However, these pills also contained potentially toxic lead.

The patent medicine industry flourished during the Industrial Revolution due to the progress of manufacturing, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and a general distrust of conventional medical care at the time. That started to change when journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a series of articles for Collier’s Weekly in 1905 entitled “The Great American Fraud,” exposing the industry’s fraudulent and deceitful practices and unsafe manufacturing processes. In 1906, with the strong support of then President Teddy Roosevelt, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Drug laws have continued to evolve and in 2002, over-the-counter medications were required to print a “Drug Facts” label. 

While traveling medicine shows have disappeared, advertisements for herbal supplements with improbable claims for rapid weight loss and sexual enhancement litter magazines and TVs. Just as they do now, scientists 100 years in the future will probably wonder what we were thinking!

For a link to this story, click here.

A Vaccine for Cocaine

By Medical Discovery News

Feb. 4, 2012

A Vaccine for Cocaine

In the city that never sleeps, 274 people died due to cocaine abuse last year, according to the New York Post. While that figure has decreased by almost half in the past four years in New York City alone, scientists are attempting to create vaccines to end the addiction for millions of people around the world.

Despite the general belief that drug addiction is a moral failure rather than a physical disease, developing and producing inexpensive vaccines for addicts can reduce the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on their medical care and incarceration. Plus, it can help turn their lives around.

After 20 years of work by a number of different scientists, a cocaine vaccine is showing promising results. A trial study by an arm of the National Institutes of Health showed the vaccine reduced cocaine use in 38 percent of vaccinated patients. It works by stimulating the immune system to produce anti-cocaine antibodies that attack cocaine molecules in the blood, preventing them from traveling to organs such as the brain. If it’s not allowed in the brain, cocaine can’t induce a high. Therefore, over time, the patient may have a better chance at kicking the addiction.

Cocaine works by binding to receptors that normally would receive dopamine from another neuron. That leaves excess dopamine stuck between neurons, stimulating these neurons to fire repeatedly, creating the euphoria users feel. Some scientists believe this high makes cocaine the most addictive of drugs and is the reason why behavior therapy has not been effective in helping addicts stay off the drug.

A complication in developing the vaccine was the small size of the cocaine molecule, which does not generate a good immune response and high levels of antibodies. So, the idea was to link it to a large protein molecule. Researchers focused on an unlikely partner molecule – the cholera toxin B, a portion of cholera toxin that does not cause disease, but will stimulate the immune system to respond.

Researchers then attached this portion of the toxin to the cocaine molecule. Once the vaccine is injected, it induces production of antibodies that then circulate in the blood. When an addict uses cocaine, the antibodies bind to the molecule and prevent it from entering the brain.

The vaccine is a strict regimen of five shots over 12 weeks, a schedule that was challenging for many addicts to meet. In those that did, a third saw positive results. After two months, they needed a booster vaccine to maintain the proper level of cocaine antibodies. Researchers say the next step is to make the vaccine effective for a larger proportion of the people taking it, and to maintain the antibody level for longer than two months. It’s also clear that counseling and behavior therapy is necessary to control urges since the vaccine does not affect this physical component of the addiction.

Making a cocaine vaccine available to a wide range of people in both developed and developing countries would curb the damaging toll of this drug.

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