Cannabis Could Help Treat ADHD

Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) use Cannabis more than most of us, according to a Brown University study. But, they’re probably not toking up for the reasons you’d think.

Far from lazing around, new research suggests they may be using Cannabis to do things like write a college essays, organize their bedrooms, or even file taxes. This is because, for some, the controversial drug helps promote focus and alleviate hyperactivity.

Cannabis and ADHD seem like a volatile a pairing; both have a history of controversy and they’ve only recently gained some measure of acceptance in the medical community.

Though stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are commonly prescribed for treating ADHD, they come with a whole host of side effects such as insomnia, weight loss and anxiety. “Cannabis absolutely can help ADHD. The side effects are milder,” says California’s Dr. David Bearman, a clinician interested in the field of medical cannabis.

Still, how can a drug famous for making people unproductive actually do the opposite? The answer, according to Bearman, lies in a brain neurotransmitter called dopamine.

We all learned in high school that neurotransmitters like dopamine cross the synapse from one nerve cell to another. This process is critical to our ability to maintain attention, organize and plan, as well as other executive functions. Bearman and some scientists believe proteins called dopamine transporters interfere with the dopamine crossing the synapse.

Imagine a four-way intersection in which cars are dopamine and streets are the synapse. In a functioning brain, the dopamine travels with ease. An ADHD brain is like a six-way intersection during rush hour and with malfunctioning traffic lights. A stimulant like Adderall help alleviate the gridlock.

A molecule in Cannabis may also help regulate the neural traffic. Of the 400 different chemicals in Cannabis, about 66 are cannabinoids. “Cannabinoids are a way for the principal cells to regulate the traffic lights,” says Dan Madison of Stanford University.

Obviously many scientists are skeptical of Bearman and Madison, and still believe Cannabis to be a potentially dangerous, illicit drug. Dr. L.C. Bidwell of Brown University says, “ADHD leads to more risks, Cannabis use is one of these risks.”

This stance on medical Cannabis isn’t new. “We’re up against over 100 years of propaganda and lies and misunderstandings,” says Bearman.

But a recent study of ADHD Cannabis users could have interesting implications on skeptics in the field. Leanne Tamm of Cincinnatti Children’s Hospital Medical Center examined the executive function of ADHD users and non-users. Tamm and her team predicted ADHD Cannabis users to score lowest in executive function tests. Surprisingly, the results suggested what Bearman and others have advocated for quiet some time; Cannabis may be helpful and not harmful.

Bearman believes more communication is necessary for the best patient care, and hopes that studies like this can be the catalyst. “We need more interaction between researchers and clinicians.” While he is willing to believe testimonies of his patients, many doctors are not.

 For those with ADHD who prefer stimulants for their symptoms, Bearman suggests Cannabis for alleviating the unwanted side effects. “Some people take Cannabis to help the jitteriness, appetite suppression. It calms anxiety,” he said. “I see no problem with taking both.”

Kevin Sterne is a freelance writer, journalist, and editor. He’s currently working on a M.A. in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University. You can read more of his work at kevinsterne.com

1. Bearman, David. ADHD and the Endocannabinoid System

2. Bearman, David. Cannabis and ADHD

3. Bidwell, L.C., 2013. Childhood and current ADHD symptom dimensions are associated with more severe cannabis outcomes in college students

4. Tamm, Leanne, 2013 Impact of ADHD and cannabis use on executive functioning in young adults

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