New research on cannabis’ effects on zebrafish shows potential impacts on humans

Researcher Declan Ali says more research must be done on cannabis' immediate and generational effects

New research on zebrafish could have interesting implications on humans and their use of cannabis.

A recent study conducted by the University of Alberta suggests that the cannabis compounds THC and CBD may have negative effects on the development of the nervous system. Research headed by Declan Ali, professor and associate dean of research in the faculty of science, used zebrafish to contribute to a growing body of knowledge on the side effects of cannabis use.

Ali and associates exposed zebrafish to THC and CBD, compounds found in cannabis known as “cannabinoids.” They found that cell development was impacted, particularly in cells associated with the motor nervous system, which manages movement. This led to abnormalities in the nervous systems of the zebrafish.

When combined with contemporary research in the field, this study lends support to the message that pregnant women and adolescents should practice caution or even abstinence when it comes to cannabis use.

The research adds to a burgeoning interest in CBD, spurred by the legalization of cannabis. CBD is a cannabinoid that has no psychoactive effects, but has many other benefits, such as treating pain and nausea. It is commonly understood to be very safe. Despite the growing interest, Ali said more research needs to be done to fully understand its effects and implications.

“There’s all sorts of stuff on the internet,” Ali said. “But I think as more and more research is done [we’re] coming to the conclusion that it’s not so cut and dry.”

Skeptics may question how applicable these findings on zebrafish are to humans. However, for Ali, zebrafish are excellent species to study physiology such as the nervous system and the endocannabinoid system, which uses cannabinoids produced by the body to regulate various functions. But the scope of this study is not limited to zebrafish.

“When you take what we’ve done… in the larger context of what other researchers have done,” Ali said, “it paints a story that says [cannabis] is potentially going to be affecting you if you’re taking it during pregnancy, and affecting your baby.”

For Ali, until more definitive research is published, it seems that pregnant women may want to refrain from using cannabis. Similarly, related research suggests these developmental effects may also extend to adolescents — people from roughly 13-19 — who use cannabis.

“Given the variety of research results that are coming out,” Ali said. “The big thing is that we need more work to really understand what’s going on.”

Future publications from his lab intend to expose the long-term effects of cannabis, including abnormalities in adults and even the effects over generations. They also intend to study the implications of cannabinoid concentration, as well as how cannabinoids act when combined.

Ali acknowledges that people may resist the findings of his research.

“If you like something, you don’t want to hear somebody saying, ‘try to be careful or abstain from it.’”

However, he hopes that studies such as his will contribute to a greater awareness of the implications of cannabis use.

“No compound is all good for you, all the time,” he said. “I don’t want to say cannabis is bad for you, because under some circumstances, it may be the best thing [for you]. I just think we need more research. The data suggests that we don’t know as much as we really need to right now.”

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