In every group of pot-smoking friends, there are one-hit wonders, there are those who never seem to get high, and, occasionally, there are those who completely freak out. Avid users have always chalked this up to strain types and experience levels with the drug, but there’s increasing — and controversial — evidence to suggest our genes determine who feels the brunt of its mind-altering effects.
In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, scientists at the University of Exeter say the prevalence of a gene called AKT1 influences the severity of a person’s response to the drug — and, therefore, can be used to identify people who are prone to pot-induced mental illness.
It’s not the first time scientists have singled out this gene. In a previous study, one AKT1 gene variant was found to be particularly common in people with psychosis who also happened to smoke a lot of pot. How the two were linked, however, wasn’t exactly clear.
In the new study, researchers found that healthy people — that is, people without psychosis — carrying that same AKT1 variant were more likely to have an acute psychotic response to smoking weed. It’s already established that individuals who experience these discrete psychotic responses multiple times are prone to developing a full-blown psychotic disorder down the line. This new data, they write, will hopefully be used to screen people who are prone to cannabis psychosis and potentially develop a treatment.
The researchers used the Psychotomimetic States Inventory to assess schizotypal responses in 442 marijuana users when they were both high and sober. After linking these results to the users’ genomes, they found that individuals carrying the AKT1 gene variant were more likely to experience a psychotic response to the drug and have baseline schizotypal symptoms in the first place.
The findings are hot on the heels of a related study published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry. Using survey data from 34,000 American adults, those researchers found that marijuana did not put people at risk for developing mood or anxiety disorders. While the results seem contradictory to the findings of the Translational Medicine study, it’s important to note that the survey did not factor in genetics, which, as scientists are now finding, plays a much bigger role in the pot-psychosis link than originally thought.
As legalization continues to gain traction, it’s important that fears about marijuana use aren’t raised needlessly. It’s also equally critical to figure out how to make sure the growing number of cannabis users stays healthy. The scarcity of conclusive evidence actually revealing a cause-and-effect relationship between marijuana use and psychosis has led to a fiery debate over its significance, but it is becoming more obvious that certain people — this is where genetics plays a role — are more prone to developing mental health issues than others.
Smoke responsibly, guys.