Marijuana is slowly ditching its illicit reputation. But as recreational use broadens and the drug becomes more available, concern grows for one group of potential consumers in particular. The number of pregnant people using cannabis is on the rise, and scientists are still scrambling to understand the possible ramifications.
Two recent studies by the Teratology Society suggest there may be a reason to worry. Exposure to marijuana during pregnancy looks a lot like alcohol exposure, the studies argue, and can even present with symptoms similar to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
Jennifer Thomas, a psychologist at San Diego State University, administered alcohol, cannabinoids (the active chemicals in marijuana like THC and CBD), or both to rats during their equivalent of a human’s third trimester of pregnancy. This is a key period of development, so once the resulting offspring reached adolescence Thomas evaluated some of their behaviors to see if the substances had any effect. She measured how the rats moved when kept in an open space to test for hyperactivity, one of the potential symptoms of prenatal alcohol exposure. Thomas and her colleagues found that both cannabis and alcohol increased activity of the adolescent rats, and symptoms were even more severe when the two substances were combined.
Greg Cole, a neurobiologist at North Carolina Central University, dug a little deeper in his own study, where he gave very low does of alcohol, cannabinoids, or a combination thereof to zebrafish. He found that cannabinoids changed gene expression and altered cell communication in the zebrafish embryo in a way that looked very similar to alcohol. And like Thomas, he found that the one-two punch of alcohol and cannabinoids made things worse. When the two substances are combined, he says, “it’s like doing either in larger amounts.”
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