The Most Recent and Conclusive Research on Cannabis During Pregnancy with Neuroscientist Andrew Scheyer | PART 1
It’s time to look into the most recent research on cannabis and pregnancy. Not a Reddit forum or an Instagram comment thread. This episode is so packed full of information we had to split it into 2 parts. Part 2 will be coming out soon so make sure you subscribe to get updated!
We asked Neuroscientist Andrew Scheyer to give us a look into research and data that has been collected and analyzed since 2002 – on the long term consequences of cannabinoid exposure during pregnancy. As Cannabis Enthusiasts, it was hard to hear some of what Andrew had to say, but for the same reason we vaccinate kids (science) we need to have this information.
We have all heard something along the lines of “I used cannabis when I was pregnant and my kids are geniuses!” and while we do not want to judge, discredit, or make anyone feel hurt, it is our job to look into the most recent research possible.
So listen to Episode 26 and 27 (part 2 coming soon) or read the transcript below to learn what Andrew and his team have discovered about cannabis during pregnancy
Note: this article is just about cannabis DURING pregnancy and breastfeeding. We most certainly support mothers and fathers who smoke weed. Every person is different and everybody’s endocannabinoid system is different. You have to do what feels right by you and your doctor. Have a different opinion? Please share it! Have other research, let us know!
Andrew, Tell us about your background and history?
I’m a neuroscientist. I began my career – at least this part of it – doing my Ph.D. thesis in Chicago with Marina Wolf. We were working on the long term consequences of cocaine addiction. One of the things we found was that the cannabinoid system in the brain is changed, as it is with many addictive drugs.
That led me to a career in studying cannabinoids. About four years ago, I finished my doctoral thesis and started working here in Marseille, Southern France, on the long term consequences of cannabinoid exposure during what we call vulnerable windows of development. Our research focuses both on in-utero (consumption during pregnancy) as well as the early perinatal period (breastfeeding) and then up through adolescence when the brain is still developing.
My expertise is electrophysiology, which is the study of how neurons communicate with each other. Within the lab, we also do a lot of behavioral work, and I do a lot of writing as well.
With Legalization in Many Places, Have You Seen an Increase in The Amount of Women Choosing to Use Cannabis During Pregnancy?
Yes. Some of that data is hard to track because, especially the self-reported use, which is how we get most of these statistics. People are not super open about their drug use, especially when it comes to their children because federally, it’s still an illegal drug. Employers can still discriminate even in states where it is legal.
We have seen a rise in statistics for the use of cannabis during pregnancy and the breastfeeding period. But, I would put a little asterisk next to all those because they are all still self-reported measures. But yes, Then the United States, as well as here in France we have seen increased use of cannabis during and following pregnancy.
How do you go about getting participants for these kinds of studies or research?
A lot of it will come from, as I said, self-reported use. Some of it will also come from blood work. When you’re in a hospital, they’re going to take blood. Part of that is always going to be checking for psychoactive substances or pharmaceuticals or other drugs of abuse. There’s a fair bit of good statistics on that.
Then there are a few great long term studies that have been done where they recruited thousands of people in the Netherlands. That would be The Generation R Study. In the US, there’s also The ABCD Study. These are individuals who agreed to participate. We’ve since followed their offspring in some cases past adolescence and up into adulthood. Because the data are all anonymized and very discreetly kept, the rate at which these people continue to report data is quite high.
The generation R study, for instance, still has 800+ participants that have been followed for nearly two decades now. We have great data from that.
Aside from that, a lot of work comes from animal studies. In that case, the pregnant dams or the lactating dams of rats or mice will be exposed to cannabis. And then later measures are done on their offspring. Whether that be behavioral studies or looking directly at the neurons themselves or how the brain develops. So it’s a mix of the two.
Is there any way to control the way that people ingest cannabis? Are you looking at people smoking, taking tinctures? Is it all just across the board?
In animal studies, that is controlled because the researchers are the ones administering the drug. In the past few years, there’s been a lot of developments for vapor chambers. If you go back historically, in most of the animal studies, they’re injecting the THC or other cannabinoids. That was simply because this is how most drugs are administered. It’s easy to control the exact dosages.
However, we all recognize that intravenous drugs are not the same as inhaled drugs, and they’re not the same as oral drugs. So there have been a lot of developments in the past few years in the animal research trying to control for those factors and trying to replicate more what we call naturalistic models or things that are more akin to what humans are doing.
What you bring up is a huge problem with the human data, because first of all, there’s a huge variation in how people metabolize cannabis.
If you and I were both to eat the same five milligram THC gummy candy, there’s a good chance that our plasma levels, the levels of THC in our blood, would be very different from each other. That’s hard to control. How well people inhale or how poorly people inhale, it’s hard to control.
The biggest factor is that there are thousands upon thousands of chemovars or cultivars of cannabis and for probably 95% of the studies that you read, there’s really no good way to know which of those people are consuming. Even if those people believe they know themselves, what they’re consuming, the accuracy of those measurements are usually pretty poor.
When you read a study and you see that there are 15 people in it, you might think twice about interpreting those results. Whereas if you see a really consistent finding across a thousand people, then there’s a pretty good chance that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re smoking Maui Wowie or OG Kush. It doesn’t really matter how it is consumed so long as those thousand people are all seeing the same outcome.
Tell us About Those Outcomes, What Were The Results of Your Research?
What’s published has focused either on the adult the long term consequences of in-utero exposure or the early life consequences of exposure through breastfeeding. We’re working on the adult consequences of the breastfeeding stuff, but it’s not published yet.
For the in-utero data, and this is animals or humans who have consumed THC during the pregnancy period, we see a number of things. Both in early life and all the way through adulthood. Perhaps the most consistent finding across all of this is that there are deficits to both social learning and the way in which we learn.
There’s something that we do called temporal order learning. The easiest way to think about this is how we all learned math. You have to start with really basic math, addition, subtraction, etc. Then you build upon those principles to learn more. You create a foundation by learning one thing and then you expand upon that foundation. This is the principle of how our brains acquire and integrate new information. Both in animals and humans.
One of the remarkable things about all this cannabis research is that the data that we see in animals and humans is incredibly consistent. That’s not true for a lot of research. Cancer research for instance, we see very different things in humans and in animals, but for whatever reason in the cannabinoid research, it’s very consistent.
So this form of learning is disrupted during early life. That would be during early grade school, or all the way up into adolescence. There are difficulties with acquiring and integrating new information.
The other very consistent finding is social disruption. That can mean a few things in really young children. An increase in what we call externalizing symptoms, which would be outbursts or minor psychotic episodes or generally delinquent behavior. Moving on into adolescence and adulthood it’s what we would generally just call antisocial behavior.
One of the correlates of that in rodent models is what’s called social memory. Say I expose ‘Subject Rat’ to ‘Rat A’. Then later I expose ‘Subject Rat’ to ‘Rat A’ AND ‘Rat B’ – it’s [subject rat] gonna spend more time with rat B because it’s a novel experience. It remembers, Oh, I’ve already seen ‘Rat A’ before, so I’m going to go hang out and explore ‘Rat B’.
You’ll see this if you have dogs that you take to the dog park, they’ll do the same thing. If you have little kids, you take them to the kindergarten, we do the same thing. They’re going to seek out social novelty. What we see in the development of rodents and in humans is that this seems to be broken somewhere and we’re not exactly sure where in the brain this is disrupted. But there seems to be no discrimination between new and old experiences. This suggests going back to the learning that there are problems with solidifying information in the brain.
Do you have a comparison of these results to something like a pharmaceutical drug that might be prescribed for nausea during pregnancy or alcohol?
So with the antiemetic drugs, which are the drugs used to treat nausea, those are incredibly low in terms of side effects. The only side effects that have been seen are mild deficits in immune function. Even those are very rare, but there are no real cognitive problems.
Alcohol is a little bit of a different story and this is something I think is really important to highlight. If you Google cannabis use during pregnancy and you start reading forums or on Reddit, you’ll see a lot of people who have their anecdotal experience where they say, ‘I smoked during my pregnancy, I used it for whether it’s recreational purposes or medicinal purposes and my kid’s fine‘. And this is a story that you’ll read across the board.
What I think is really dangerous there is that with something like alcohol, the consequences are very evident. A baby who has even mild fetal alcohol syndrome, it’s very obvious the moment of birth that there is a problem and therefore you can address that problem and you can treat it.
What we’re seeing with cannabis is that in general, there’s no real change in birth weights. Babies are coming out with 10 fingers, 10 toes and two eyes. Everything appears to be pretty normal. Where we see issues is with cognitive development and these are much more difficult things to pin down and therefore they’re also much more difficult things to identify and to treat.
In an ideal world, you would do take no medications during your pregnancy, but when it’s necessary, it’s a pros and cons game. There’s upsides and downsides to all these approaches.
You’re saying that manufactured drugs are probably the safest route for things like nausea or for anxiety during pregnancy?
Yes. They have been extremely well studied. Most importantly we know what they are and we can control how much you’re getting. One of the biggest issues right now with the cannabis industry in general is that there’s, especially in the United States, basically zero oversight. It’s very difficult to know what you are consuming.
If you look at some of the studies that have been done where they’ve collected samples of edibles from dispensary’s in Colorado, Arizona, California, Oregon – they find that what’s on the label is very rarely what’s actually in the edible itself. And so it might say five milligrams, but that might mean it’s two milligrams. That might mean it’s 10 milligrams. The biggest advantage of the pharmaceutical approach is that they are pure compounds that have been well studied and we know exactly how much you’re putting in your body. With cannabis, there’s always going to be a gamble that you don’t know what’s in it. Little things like molds and microtoxins are very common in cannabis because it’s plant material, it has moisture. It’s a nice hotbed for bacteria. You really don’t know what you’re ingesting. I’m not pregnant. I’m not a woman. I can’t make this choice for anybody else. But I would say that it is my inclination to stay away from things that have that many unknown variables.
We have All Seen So Much Anecdotal Evidence on Cannabis on Internet Forums, We Should Not Believe All of This?
There’s a great, a great line that my PhD mentor used to say, which is that “the plural of anecdote is not data”. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard somebody say, Oh, you know, I did X, Y, or Z and my baby’s fine. What you need is to actually look at are these studies. They exist. They’re out there.
I know that there are difficulties with accessing them or perhaps the language is dense, but the reality is these studies have been done and we have consistent data where they’ve controlling for these variables. Just because you’ve read something 12 times on a Reddit thread does not necessarily mean it’s a reliable source of information.
Have you done any of this research with other cannabinoids? Is this all about THC or have you done it with any of the other various cannabinoids?
A lot of the research in animal models is done with synthetic analogs of THC. So they are drugs that at a pharmacological level work the same or similarly to THC. Then of course a lot of research is also done with THC. The issue with that research is that cannabis contains a little bit over a hundred phytocannabinoids, which are the compounds that include THC, CBD, CBN, all these cannabinoids.
Adding onto that that, we know that terpenoids and flavonoids are also pharmacologically active. The reality is that THC is not cannabis. When you read studies and they’re using even THC, it’s still a facsimile. It’s still a proxy measure for cannabis consumption itself. But as I said before, the research that has been done with synthetic cannabinoids or with THC has remarkably similar outcomes to what we see in the meta studies, these big studies of humans who are actually using cannabis.
Aside from perhaps a few wayword individuals, very few people are consuming synthetic cannabinoids and very few people are consuming pure THC in the real world. In science we call it face validity, which is essentially – does something that we do in the lab, in these synthetic situations, does that translate well to humans and the real world? While that’s not always the case, it is very much the case with cannabis research.
If you could synthesize just CBD, do you think that that would be safer?
CBD is a really complicated question. Anybody who tells you that they know how CBD works is either misinformed or lying. I can tell you as somebody who spends all day, every day, reading about cannabinoids and working with cannabinoids, that even those of us who are on the cutting edge of that research – we cannot tell you at a pharmacological level how CBD works.
It’s what we call a promiscuous drug. Meaning that it has a lot of targets in the body. For comparison, THC binds mostly to what’s called the CB1 receptor. Your primary cannabinoid receptor. It has a couple of off target effects, but 99% of what THC does happens through that one receptor. CBD on the other hand acts through at least five different receptors. It also interferes with enzymes. It also alters hormone levels.
CBD is something that I would not necessarily recommend. Especially for pregnant women, because we just don’t know. It’s too big of an unknown at this point.
Also, if you are on any other medications (which something like 60% of American citizens are taking at least one prescription drug) CBD alters the enzyme that is used to digest those drugs. All drugs go into your body and at some point they’re broken down by an enzyme in your blood. A lot of people know, for instance, about the interaction between nicotine and birth control. Nicotine increases the enzyme that metabolizes birth control. What that means is that you digest the birth control faster and it’s out of your system faster.This is why when you are prescribed birth control, you’re usually told not to smoke because it makes the birth control less effective.
This same kind of a relationship happens with CBD at what are called the cytochrome P450 enzymes, which happened to be an extremely important class of enzymes that are responsible for digesting upwards of 80% of currently available pharmaceuticals. This means if you’re on a pharmaceutical drug, there’s a very good chance that taking CBD will interfere with how your body processes that drug.
This has been seen in a number of clinical examples with epileptic medications and with anti-anxiety medications – it can even change things like the anesthesia that you would be put under if you were to have a surgery.
CBD is really interesting, and it potentially has some really great uses like treating epilepsy and addiction. I think it’s a fascinating prospect, but it is also not necessarily something I would recommend taking without purpose and without research.
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