Some people believe that amotivational syndrome is caused by marijuana use. While this may be the case for some, there are a number of problems with this theory. For one, amotivational syndrome is significantly less common than marijuana use. Further, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. For example, people who have amotivational syndrome and use marijuana may have been using the marijuana as a form of self-medicating amotivational syndrome rather than developing the amotivational syndrome from marijuana use. These facts have led experts to pursue other potential causes.
The Amotivational Symptom and Marijuana Debate
Many studies have shown that “moderate” use of marijuana is not capable of altering one’s personality or creating any significant impairments. However, conditions like amotivational syndrome are often said to arise in those who have been using the drug for a long period, especially when they began at a young age. So, how might they be related?
To understand that, you need to understand the brain’s reward system. This is a system that evolved in our ancient ancestors to help them recognize and repeat behaviors that were good for them. It involves chemicals in the brain that make us feel good. These chemicals are released when we do things like exercise and eat certain foods. The chemicals are released into the brain and picked up by receptors.
The problem is that some drugs can mimic these feel-good chemicals. So, using drugs for a short time can feel good, but it can also lead to the receptors becoming worn out or damaged. This means they don’t work as well, and it can be difficult to feel good when you do other things or when you use the drug in question.
Why Does This Syndrome Only Develop in Some Long-Term Users?
The answer lies in understanding the behavior of our brain’s own marijuana system.
Our human brain produces its own endogenous marijuana-like chemicals. One of them is call 2-AG and is the most abundant of the endogenous marijuana-like chemicals; the other is called anandamide. 2-AG and anandamide are made from the fat in our diet.
Indeed, when we consume lots of fat our brain rewards us by releasing 2-AG and anandamide. Yes, our brain loves it when we consume fat; it makes us feel happier and induces us to eat more fat. You can thank your brain’s marijuana system for this.
2-AG and anandamide induce their effects in the brain by attaching to proteins called receptors. This happens similar to a key fitting into a lock. However, the brain’s response can be a little more complicated.
If we repeatedly insert our key (marijuana) into the lock (receptor protein) too many times or too often the brain does something really strange: it takes away the lock. Thus the person needs to smoke more and more in order to find the reduced number of locks. Are there any long term consequences to having fewer working marijuana receptors (locks) in the brain?
Research Behind Amotivational Syndrome
Most of the research into amotivational syndrome has utilized either observational reports or case-histories of those who use marijuana. While these are often valuable, they are not considered to offer the most exhaustive results, leading other experts in the field to view the data with skepticism.
These studies have not been able to prove that the syndrome exists definitively, but they do show that performance in the workplace or at school is often diminished with the use of marijuana. Chronic use of marijuana has also been found to be correlated to lower grades and more dropouts. However, there may be other circumstances intertwined with these statistics, such as preexisting depression, lack of ambition, poverty, socioeconomic status, and other mental health issues that may lead individuals to utilize marijuana in the first place. Therefore, causality on the issue is very uncertain given the current data.
While many believe marijuana certainly causes amotivational syndrome, further studies will be necessary to act as definitive evidence. In addition to the lack of data, many believe marijuana cannot cause amotivational syndrome due to how few people develop the condition relative to how many use the drug. In fact, many believe that amotivational syndrome itself does not exist, but is simply a misdiagnosis of depression or chronic intoxication. It has been challenged by both pharmacological and behavioral standpoints.
One of the most well-known arguments against amotivational syndrome comes from Leo Hollister, an American professor emeritus of psychiatry, pharmacology, and medicine. He spent his career studying hallucinogenic drugs, along with their classifications and side effects. In 1986 he stated:
“Whether chronic use of cannabis changes the basic personality of the user so that he or she becomes less impelled to work and to strive for success has been a vexing question. As with other questions concerning cannabis use, it is difficult to separate consequences from possible causes of drug use … The demonstration of such a syndrome in field studies has been unsuccessful … Laboratory studies have provided only scant evidence for this concept … If this syndrome is so difficult to prove, why does concern about it persist?
Mainly because of clinical observations. One cannot help being impressed by the fact that many promising youngsters change their goals in life drastically after entering the illicit drug culture, usually by way of cannabis. While it is impossible to be certain that these changes were caused by the drug (one might equally argue that the use of drug followed the decision to change lifestyle), the consequences are often sad. With cannabis as with most other pleasures, moderation is the keyword.”
Other experts agree, stating that the evidence simply is not strong enough to assume causality. Once again, further research will be necessary to answer these questions conclusively.
In 2006, a drug called Acomplia was introduced in the UK market for the treatment of obesity. Acomplia was invented based upon the recognition that marijuana induces “the munchies,” a strong craving for high-calorie foods. This well-known side effect of marijuana indicated that the brain’s feeding center possessed endogenous marijuana receptors. Acomplia was designed to block these receptors, and thus block cravings for high-calorie food.
Acomplia worked very well as an anti-obesity drug but it had a very nasty side effect: it caused severe depression and suicidal thoughts. The drug was withdrawn from the market.
The actions of Acomplia taught neuroscientists an important lesson about the role of our brain’s endogenous marijuana system: We need it to function normally in order to experience everyday pleasures. If the endogenous marijuana receptors are blocked 24-hours each day, day after day, we lose the ability to experience pleasure and become apathetic and depressed.