Toke up and Focus. Marijuana and ADHD

Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder use cannabis more than most of us, according to a Brown University study. But, they probably are not toking up for the reasons one may think. Far from lazing around, suggestive new research offers, they might be doing it to write a college essay, organize their bedroom, or even file taxes. For some, the controversial drug helps alleviate problems with attention focusing and hyperactivity.

Cannabis and ADHD may be a volatile a pairing; both have a history of controversy and, only recently, have gained acceptance in the medical community.

Stimulants, such as Adderall and Ritalin, are commonly prescribed for treating ADHD, but they come with side effects such as insomnia, weight loss and anxiety. “Cannabis absolutely can help ADHD. The side effects are milder,” says California’s Dr. David Bearman, a clinician interested in the field of medical cannabis.

Still, how can a drug famous for making people unproductive could actually do the opposite. The answer, according to Bearman, lies in a brain neurotransmitter called dopamine.

We all learned in high school that neurotransmitters like dopamine cross the synapse from one nerve cell to another; this process is critical to our ability to maintain attention, organize and plan, as well as other executive functions. Bearman and some scientists believe proteins called dopamine transporters interfere with the dopamine crossing the synapse.

Imagine a four-way intersection in which cars are dopamine and streets are the synapse. In a functioning brain, the dopamine travels with ease. An ADHD brain is like a six-way intersection during rush hour and with malfunctioning traffic lights. A stimulant like Adderall helps alleviate the gridlock.

A molecule in cannabis may also help regulate the neural traffic. Of the 400 different chemicals in cannabis, about 66 are cannabinoids. “Cannabinoids are a way for the principal cells to regulate the traffic lights,” said Dan Madison of Stanford University.

Obviously many scientists are skeptical of Bearman and Madison, and still believe cannabis to be a dangerous, illicit drug. Dr. L.C. Bidwell of Brown University says, “ADHD leads to more risks, cannabis use is one of these risks.” This stance on medical cannabis isn’t new. “We’re up against over 100 years of propaganda and lies and misunderstandings,” says Bearman

But a recent study of ADHD cannabis users could have interesting implications on skeptics in the field. Leanne Tamm of Cincinnatti Children’s Hospital Medical Center examined the executive function of ADHD users and non-users. Tamm and her team predicted ADHD cannabis users to score lowest in executive function tests. Surprisingly, the results suggested what Bearman and others have advocated for quiet some time; cannabis may be helpful and not harmful.

Bearman believes more communication is necessary between for the best patient care, and he hopes that studies like this can be the catalyst. “We need more interaction between researchers and clinicians.” While he is willing to believe testimonies of his patients, many doctors are not.

For those with ADHD who prefer stimulants for their symptoms, Bearman suggests cannabis for alleviating the unwanted side effects. “Some people take cannabis to help the jitteriness, appetite suppression. It calms anxiety,” he said. “I see no problem with taking both.”

1. Bearman, David. ADHD and the Endocannabinoid System
2. Bearman, David. Cannabis and ADHD
3. Bidwell, L.C., 2013. Childhood and current ADHD symptom dimensions are associated with more severe cannabis outcomes in college students
4. Tamm, Leanne, 2013 Impact of ADHD and cannabis use on executive functioning in young adults