How Does CBD Really Affect the Brain?


The effects which CBD has on the human brain are what makes the substance such a fascinating topic over the past year or so. CBD has the potential to combat mental difficulties as well as physical ailments and may provide relief for lifelong conditions such as epilepsy or arthritis. Since CBD is non-intoxicating and does not get you ‘high’ in the sense that THC does, it has become much more attractive to people who desire relief from pain but do not want to be impaired. Further, with the passage of the 2018 farm bill, CBD is federally legal in the US.

For years, the public has been taught that marijuana is potentially dangerous and can even cause damage to the brain— and this is where much of the trepidation comes from. These concerns, while understandable, are entirely unnecessary. There is virtually no evidence of any detrimental long-term effects of CBD on the human brain. In fact, the positive anecdotal feedback and current research on this miraculous compound is enough to have many people dumping out their medicine cabinets.

CBD and Serotonin

One of the most significant effects of CBD on the human brain is its interaction with serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a chemical which is found throughout the central nervous system and other parts of the body—produced by nerve cells. It is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is commonly found in many of the foods we eat. Serotonin impacts every single part of the body and plays a significant role in functions that we could not survive without.

For starters, it is considered a natural mood stabilizer, so it regulates things like happiness and anxiety. Having low levels of serotonin is associated with depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and other conditions, so the chemical is incredibly important when considering mental health.

Serotonin also stimulates the parts of the brain related to sleeping and waking up; another bodily function which, gone unchecked, can disrupt all other mechanisms.

CBD interacts with serotonin through the serotonin 1A receptor, which is associated with a wide range of healthy and positive functions vital to our well-being.  Not only does it activate this specific receptor, but it also enhances its activation, meaning that CBD could be used to significantly reduce the intensity of conditions which are associated with an abundance or lack of serotonin. These conditions could include things like opioid addiction, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia symptoms.

In a double-blind study published in 1993, healthy subjects were given either CBD, a conventional anti-anxiety medication, or a placebo, and then subjected to a simulated public speaking test. The subjective anxiety of all the subjects was compared, and it was found that CBD decreased anxiety in the subjects after the speaking test. The researchers then had enough evidence to suggest that CBD has anti-anxiety properties in those who are subjected to a stressful situation.

Other studies have been conducted which use computer imaging to analyze the effects which CBD administration has on the brain. Using fMRI machines, researchers have been able to observe the changes in blood flow and brain activity after patients received doses of between 400 to 600 milligrams of CBD. The results of this study indicated significant alterations in activity among brain regions which correlate with fear and memories of fear. These results are consistent with the idea that CBD can be used to alleviate anxiety and reduce fear and stress responses.

CBD and Opioid Receptors

Like the serotonin receptors mentioned previously, CBD directly interacts with other receptors associated with opioids. These receptors deal with the regulation of pain in the body and are the primary receptors targeted by pharmaceutical painkillers. These are also the receptors which react to frequently abused drugs like morphine, heroin, and fentanyl.

Since CBD has been deemed non-addictive and is not habit forming amongst users, it is thought that its reaction with some of these receptors could reduce dependency on pharmaceutical drugs or aid those in addiction recovery. Although more research needs to be done on this topic before making a fully educated statement, anecdotal evidence seems to lean toward the side of CBD being a significant help in this process.

CBD and Neurogenesis

Another significant effect of CBD and brain function is that it is thought to promote adult neurogenesis. As we age, our neurons begin to deteriorate and lose the vibrancy and function that they had as young adult brains. Adult neurogenesis is the process of creating new neurons that eventually become intertwined with the preexisting systems of the adult brain.

Neurogenesis is a process which has only been officially inducted into the scientific world in the last few decades, and much of the research surrounding it is still to be discovered. However, it is thought that ineffective or impaired neurogenesis could be linked to cognitive diseases or hindered memory. Therefore, many believe that assisting adult neurogenesis as much as possible will be a recipe for healthy cognition and memory into old age.

According to a recent study published by the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2015, CBD is intimately connected with the process of adult neurogenesis and plays an irreplaceable role in many of its central operations. The study also cites impaired neurogenesis as possibly being linked to depression, although those effects are still being explored.  

Many scientists now feel that using cannabinoids such as CBD to target the endocannabinoid system may prove an effective method of promoting adult neurogenesis. Additionally, CBD is said to encourage neuroplasticity which, like neurogenesis, is the process of reorganizing the brain’s operations of learning and memory. An increase in neuroplasticity is also attributed to fewer age-related cognitive disorders.

CBD and Psychosis

It is also thought that even a single dose of CBD can counteract symptoms of psychosis, whether the user has diagnosed schizophrenia or not. Over 100,000 people in the United States experience a psychotic episode every year, so CBD could potentially provide relief for those who may not want to endure the side effects of traditional antipsychotic drugs.

It accomplishes this by inhibiting anandamide signaling in the brain. Anandamide is a type of endocannabinoid—a cannabinoid produced within the body. Researchers discovered it in the 1980s when they found that phytocannabinoids fit perfectly into the endocannabinoid receptors of the human body. They named it anandamide after the Sanskrit word for divine bliss because of the euphoric sensations it produces.

Some researchers believe that a lack of endocannabinoids like anandamide contributes to many common mental and physical conditions and that phytocannabinoids like CBD can help bring the body back to homeostasis.

In a study published by JAMA Psychiatry in 2018, 33 subjects who had been experiencing psychotic episodes were given either a 600 mg dose of CBD or a placebo. They were then asked to complete a memory task while their brains were analyzed with fMRI technology. The researchers found that the group who had taken the CBD showed far less severe abnormalities in the brain than those who had taken the placebo. Although CBD seems to work in a completely different way than traditional antipsychotic drugs, the study suggests that CBD could be “resetting” the abnormal brain activity which leads to psychosis.

Mitigating the Effects of THC with CBD

Finally, in a new study undertaken by University College London, researchers have outlined the idea that CBD acts as a kind of “buffer” from some of the adverse effects of THC. It is thought that in some individuals, THC can bring on acute panic attacks and psychosis, which would explain why a small percentage of those who have tried THC found it intensely unpleasant.

It is now believed that strains of cannabis with a higher CBD content are less likely to cause this effect in the brain. Further, it has been shown that when this does occur, CBD can be administered to counteract the reaction within a short amount of time.

This new observation could also mean that a higher CBD to THC ratio may reduce the chance of developing psychosis or addiction linked to cannabis. So, for example, for those who need to use cannabis medicinally but suffer from side effects like paranoia or anxiety, a strain of cannabis with a higher CBD content may still provide them the benefits they need without the mind-altering effects.


The brain controls all the functions performed by the human body; nothing can happen within it without first being signaled by the brain. While many prospective users of CBD are concerned about possible adverse health effects on the brain, research has shown that it is far more likely that the positives outweigh any negatives.

For many people with life-altering conditions, CBD has been a kind of miracle treatment outside of pharmaceuticals, where the side effects are few if any at all. Science is only just recently beginning to understand the full applications of CBD as a potential medical treatment, but more and more research suggests that the possibilities for it may be truly endless.


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