Can using marijuana protect adolescent’s brain cells from damage caused by drinking alcohol? A 2009 study published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology conducted diffusion tensor imaging on the brains of 42 teenagers (ages 16-19). The participants were divided into three groups: the control (who reported neither binge drinking or smoking marijuana), binge drinkers (who reported no marijuana use), and binge drinkers who are also heavy marijuana users. Researchers found significant differences in the brain structures between the binge drinker group, and the binge drinkers who are also heavy marijuana users group.
The teens who binge drink and are also heavy marijuana users, had less brain damage in four separate regions of the brain that the binge drinker only group. These findings suggest that marijuana may actually protect the brain against certain types of brain damage caused by alcohol.
More research needs to be conducted on the neuroprotective qualities that marijuana has on alcohol, but one this is clear, binge drinking causes damage to the teenage brain. This study isn’t suggesting that marijuana is good for the teenage brain, only that it may lessen some of the damage caused by alcohol.
Findings are largely consistent with research suggesting less neuropathology in adolescents without histories of substance use. However, binge drinkers who also use marijuana did not show as consistent a divergence from non-users as did the binge drink-only group. Detection of white matter alterations may have implications in identifying early cognitive dysfunction in substance using adolescents.