Medical researchers from the Universita degli Studi di Milano (Italy) say that exposure to marijuana during adolescence can seriously affect immune system development, leading to autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases in adulthood. Reporting their findings in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, the researchers say teenage marijuana use could be a risk factor for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
For the study, scientists injected “adolescent” mice with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component of marijuana, for a 10 day period. This period in the mouse lifecycle corresponded to the adolescence period in humans (12-18). A second group of adolescent mice received only a placebo. At the end of the treatments, both groups of animals were left undisturbed for two months, until they reached full adulthood.
The activity of the immune system was then evaluated, taking into consideration several important measurements, such as the ability of leukocytes to produce cytokines to mount an antibody response to vaccination or the capacity of macrophage to phagocyte particles. The researchers found that the group of mice treated with THC in adolescence had severe alterations of immune response in adulthood, characterized by a clear switch toward a pro-inflammatory and cytotoxic phenotype.
If the findings are replicated, they confirm adolescence as a key phase of immune system sensitivity, and how changes during this period of immune system development can have important long-term consequences. “I hope that the knowledge that early exposure to marijuana is associated with immediate and long-term deleterious effects on the immune system may reach adolescents and their families,” said researcher Paola Sacerdote.
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