FEB 16, 2016 1:56 PM PST

Gene Mutation Increases Risk of Psychosis for Cannabis Users

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

A variation of the ATK1 gene has been linked to people who develop psychosis. ATK1 encodes a “kinesin-like motor protein heavy chain” (NCBI). A new study from the University of Exeter and University College London uniquely examines how the same variation of ATK1 can predict how young, healthy people are affected by the cannabis drug.

According to the World Health Organization, “cannabis” refers to a series of drugs developed from the plant Cannabis sativa. The active ingredient creating psychoactive effects is a compound called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The more common name for the drug, marijuana, is a Mexican term referring to Cannabis plant material.
This new study, published today in Translational Psychiatry, was the first to look at healthy people and to examine how cannabis affects their minds. After examining 442 young cannabis users, tested both while sober and while under the influence of the drug, researchers made multiple significant observations. First, young people with a variation in the ATK1 gene were more likely to experience a psychotic response such as visual distortions, paranoia, and others.
Only one percent of cannabis users develop psychosis, but when the condition does arise, it is “devastating and long-lasting.” In addition, smoking cannabis daily doubles the risk of developing a psychotic disorder.
“Putting yourself repeatedly in a psychotic or paranoid state might be one reason why these people could go on to develop psychosis when they might not have done otherwise,” said Exeter’s Celia Morgan, PhD. “Although cannabis-induced psychosis is very rare, when it happens it can have a terrible impact on the lives of young people.”
Second, the researchers measured changes in memory. The effect of cannabis on memory loss as compared to memory abilities a week later when the participant was sober showed that memory loss was more likely while smoking cannabis.
Lastly, the study’s findings also showed female cannabis smokers to be even more susceptible to short-term memory loss than males.
"Animal studies have found that males have more of the receptors that cannabis works on in parts of the brain important in short term memory, such as the prefrontal cortex,” Morgan said. This makes males “less sensitive to the memory impairing effects of cannabis than females.”
The same AKT1 genotype variation was present in all participants observed to be more likely to experience a psychotic response. This research provides an opportunity for scientists and medical professionals reduce the prevalence of psychosis by being aware of a high risk group: those with a variation in the AKT1 gene, especially when smoking cannabis.

Source: University of Exeter

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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