Do Cannabis Users Feel More Empathy? A New Study Aims To Find Out

Écrit par abadmin

Are cannabis users better equipped to understand and process emotions? A team of researchers in Mexico found evidence showing a new potential benefit of medical cannabis: increased empathy, or an enhanced ability to understand the emotions of others.

Published Nov. 8, in the Journal of Neuroscience Research, a new study suggests regular cannabis users could have a heightened ability to understand the emotional states of others. Psychological assessments and brain imaging show that the people who consumed cannabis show stronger connectivity in brain regions associated with empathy.

Authors Víctor E. Olalde-Mathieu, Daniel Atilano-Barbosa, Arafat Angulo-Perkins, Giovanna L Licea-Haquet, Cesar Arturo Dominguez-Frausto, Fernando A. Barrios, and Sarael Alcauter Solórzano contributed to the study. They observed 136 participants, 85 of whom are regular cannabis users and a control group of 51 non-users.

Participants were tested for their emotional comprehension using scales, and MRIs were taken. Researchers applied the Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test (TECA in Spanish), developed in 2009, which analyzes the empathic ability of the subject, assessing both cognitive and affective empathy.

“Our study suggests that they show a greater understanding of the emotions of others, in other words, cannabis users could have a greater capacity to recognize and comprehend others’ emotional states,” co-author Dr. Sarael Alcauter Solórzano says in an email, whose research is associated with the Instituto de Neurobiología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Querétaro, Mexico.

Regular cannabis users showed greater connectivity in regions associated with empathy: more connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the pre-posterior central gyrus. In another analysis, the users showed greater connectivity between the left anterior insula and the ACC, and greater network strength when compared to controls. Alcauter Solórzano added a few stipulations before making any assumptions:

“However, we must keep in mind a few things,” he cautions. “First, our sample is not representative of all regular cannabis users, as our subjects were invited through social media advertisement and only around 63.9 % of the Mexican population has regular access to social media; furthermore, our sample consisted of mostly college educated people with 16 years of education on average.”

The cannabis involved in the study is not the potent cannabis bred in places with mature cannabis markets; instead, locally-sourced cannabis in Mexico was the prime product used in the study.

“Second, compared to cannabis consumed in the US, the quality of cannabis consumed in Mexico is lower, containing approximately 2%–10% of THC on the illegal market,” he says. “These differences in THC concentrations between US and Mexican cannabis could have a differential impact on functional brain outcomes between the present study and those reporting emotional dysfunctions in cannabis users.

“Third, while our study suggests potential benefits, we cannot disregard the negative effects reported by other studies,” he says. “The fact that positive and negative effects are shown by different studies is intriguing, and at least, one could argue that it indicates we don’t yet have the complete story, which is exciting because there is still much to investigate. For example, the fact that the effects can be highly individual-dependent, as suggested [earlier]. Therefore, future research could focus on exploring such heterogeneous effects.

Alcauter Solórzano added that co-authors Olalde and Atilano played significant roles in shaping the study’s final version.

What Is Empathy?

Defining empathy alone is difficult, let alone defining the regions of the brain that are associated with empathy.

“Given that empathy can be considered an umbrella term, it encompasses all the processes and subprocesses involved in generating the affective state representation of others,” Alcauter Solórzano adds. “Considering the different subprocesses involved in generating our empathic response, various brain areas and networks have been associated with it. Such is the case of the neural network underlying empathy, formed by the bilateral anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. From all the possible areas associated with the affective and cognitive process of empathy, the anterior cingulate cortex is one of the main areas in which CB1 receptors have been identified.”

Other studies have explored the emotional processing of cannabis users and found deficits: Researchers at Colorado State University’s College of Natural Sciences set out to find similar data, with slightly different results. A study published Feb. 29, 2016 in the journal PLOS ONE explored users’ ability to recognize, process, and empathize with human emotions like happiness, sadness, and anger. In that case, performances varied, good and bad, however cannabis users were more able to detect and identify anger.

The study’s findings could lead to potential treatments for social interaction deficits in various psychological conditions.

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