By / May 1, 2020

Research data shows cannabis could be a much safer choice than tobacco

According to a new study recently published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, cannabis use has a less clear effect on changes in human DNA than smoking.

Dozens of years of research showed that genes play an important role in the way people react to certain psychoactive substances and whether there is a greater or lesser likelihood of dependence on them. It is also known that drug consumption causes temporary or permanent changes in the user’s DNA, through a process called DNA methylation.

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DNA methylation rate change in smoker is higher than in cannabis consumers

DNA methylation is a biological process in which methyl groups are added to the DNA molecule to create a signal that can deactivate a specific gene. Scientists argue that errors in this methylation process can make a person more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, lupus or muscular dystrophy, or increase the likelihood of birth defects in children.

Researchers also found that environmental factors such as drug or alcohol use, stress, diet, lack of exercise and bacterial infections can alter the normal methylation process, increasing the risk of illness.

Some of these changes seem to be permanent, while others are dynamic and temporary. For example, studies have shown that higher DNA methylation rates change in smokers, but the rate of these changes can return to normal if a person quits smoking.

Cannabis also changes the DNA but at a slower pace

A team of scientists from New Zealand decided to discover how cannabis changes the process of DNA methylation compared to tobacco. The scientists used data from the Christchurch Health and Development Study, a longitudinal study that tracked 1,265 children born in 1977 for life. They were examined 24 times between birth and 40 years of age, and the researchers took a blood sample from most participants at the age of 28.

This study involved 96 participants who submitted a blood sample and described their experiences with drugs. The researchers divided the subjects into two groups: those who used both cannabis and tobacco and those who only used cannabis. For cannabis-only users, the researchers divided them into those who have used cannabis for three years or more, or met the criteria for dependency.

Using blood samples, the researchers extracted each patient’s DNA for analysis. The results linked cannabis to DNA methylation in many genes, but the results were less extreme than those caused by tobacco.

“According to previous reports of harmful effects of tobacco on DNA, the highest methylation was observed in AHRR and F2RL3 genes in cannabis and tobacco users,” explained the authors of the study. “However, these changes were not visible among those who only used cannabis.”

Cannabis use was associated with increased DNA methylation in genes not affected by tobacco. These genes are linked to neural signalling and cardiomyopathy, which ‘could potentially explain how cannabis can increase the risk of mental or heart disease.’ These conclusions are limited by the small number of people tested. The researchers claim that further studies should be carried out to determine whether these results are significant.


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