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Marijuana is somehow making millions violently sick

A recent Colorado study of ER visits is alarming medical professionals.

Photo credit: Sion Touhig / Getty Images)
  • Millions of long-time marijuana users are developing intense stomach pain, nausea and bouts of vomiting.
  • The condition is called "cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome," or "CHS."
  • What makes it happen is unclear, but the only way to stop it is to cease consumption of cannabis.

It's no longer illegal to smoke marijuana in 10 U.S. states and its medical use is allowed in 33. In Colorado, it's been fully legal since 2014, with a variety of THC — the active agent in grass — products available for sale. A new study, however, looks to harsh the buzz: There's been a dramatic rise in emergency-room visits for cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, or CHS.

It's a condition characterized by stomach pain, extreme nausea, and repeat vomiting. Researchers' concern is exacerbated by the assumption that if this many people are showing up at ERs, many more are likely to be dealing with it on their own. Part of the appeal of marijuana has always been how unlikely it is that you'll overdose on it. Doctors don't yet know exactly what's going on.

What’s causing CHS?

Image source: Inked Pixels / Shutterstock

Clinicians in Colorado are convinced that the syndrome is connected to marijiuana consumption, though they're not sure how. About 25.7 percent of the CHS ER cases — that's 2,567 patients — occurred after smoking weed, and 9.3 percent were from edible cannabis. The data tracks visits between January 2012 and January 2016.

Interestingly, patients who'd eaten grass were more likely to arrive at the ER with acute psychiatric symptoms, intoxication, and cardiovascular issues. Edible cannabis, in general, sent a disproportionately high number of high people to the hospital: While only 0.32 percent of Colorado cannabis sales are for edible varieties, it resulted in 10.7 percent of hospital visits.

CHS was first identified in 19 South Australian patients in 2004, chronic chronic users who'd been lighting up for decades. A second 2018 study of ER patients in New York City found CHS most likely to appear in patients who used pot at least 20 days each month for five or more years, and multiple times each day. Extrapolating from the local data, the study's authors concluded that it may — in these days of expanded legalization — affect somewhere from 2.13 to 3.38 million Americans annually.

In the South Australian study, doctors suggested a possible immediate cause for CHS: A hypothalamic-pituitary reaction to cannabis. They found that among long-time cannabis users, "One logical explanation for this might lie with marijuana's effect on the limbic system of the brain, particularly at the hippocampal-hypothalamic-pituitary level. A hypothalamic action is further supported by evidence that chronic cannabis use affects the secretion of pituitary hormones, suppressing growth hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and luteinising hormone, with documented pubertal arrest."

What to do if symptoms arise

Image source: dreadek / Shutterstock

If you've consumed cannabis and begin experiencing severe stomach pains, nausea, or start vomiting, there is a home "cure" many victims have found at least temporarily helpful: A hot bath or shower can alleviate the symptoms. The relief lasts only until one leaves the water, though, and also tends to diminish in effectiveness over repeat episodes.

This fits the hypothalamic hypothesis, since, says the 2004 study, "Cannabis toxicity may disrupt the balanced equilibrium of satiety, thirst, digestive, and thermoregulatory systems of the hypothalamus and this disruption might settle with hot bathing or showering."

Even if the mechanism of CHS isn't yet clear, there's just one agreed-upon cure for CHS: If you start experiencing its symptoms, stop using marijuana altogether.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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