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Yale to Study Cannabis Effects on Brain, Mental Health

The center will approach questions from different angles.

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The Yale School of Medicine last month announced plans to establish a research center to study the acute and chronic effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on neurodevelopment and mental health.

The Yale Center for the Science of Cannabis and Cannabinoids will be led by Deepak Cyril D’Souza, MD, Albert E. Kent Professor of Psychiatry and a leading expert on the pharmacology of cannabinoids.

The launch comes at a time of rapid cannabis commercialization across the United States, including retail sales that began in Connecticut in January — Yale is based in New Haven, CT.

Initial funding for the center will be provided by Yale's Department of Psychiatry, with support from the dean’s office. The funds will support pilot studies toward the development of a P50-type center grant application focused on cannabis, cannabinoids, neurodevelopment and mental health.

D’Souza recently chatted with Yale News to discuss the goals of the new center and how the public can get involved.

Yale News: Why launch the center now?

D’Souza: With the evolving landscape of cannabis, now is a good time. Connecticut recently started to retail cannabis, and in states across the country laws have been changing to make it more available. There are also changes in the potency and availability of cannabis and cannabis derivatives. More people are using it and it’s only reasonable for us to assume that it will trickle down to young people, just as tobacco and alcohol have.

YN: Have the changing laws made it easier to study cannabis?

D’Souza: There have been regulatory obstacles in the past and hopefully with some of these changes, it becomes easier for more investigators to do this kind of work.

YN: What are your goals as director?

D’Souza: One is to bring people together. An important aspect of a center is to bring people who might have complementary interests and skillsets together in a way that may not have been previously possible. I’d like to create a forum where on a regular basis people can come together to discuss ongoing projects and avenues for collaboration.

YN: What sorts of questions will center researchers pursue?

D’Souza: Right now, the center has a broad interest in the impact of cannabis on the developing brain and on mental health. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other topics of interest and relevance, and as we greenlight pilot projects, the center’s goals may become more focused.

But we’ll approach questions from different angles. For instance, there are observational studies we can do with humans and experimental studies that we cannot. So that’s where complementary approaches come in, where animal studies or studies in brain organoids become relevant and complementary to human work.

YN: How will projects and researchers become affiliated with the center?

D’Souza: I assembled a group of researchers at Yale who do everything from basic research to clinical research who will work with me to review applications for pilot funding. We hope to announce that process over the next few weeks.

YN: Changes in policies related to recreational cannabis are happening fast. What would you like the public to know about the center?

D’Souza: At the end of the day, we are doing this to generate the highest quality information that people can use to make decisions at many different levels — individuals, towns, public health departments, states, for example.

I’ve already received emails from people in the community asking for more information about the center and its goals. Some people have asked if the center is going to be for or against cannabis. And my answer is that we just want to collect information on the science of cannabis and cannabinoids. We want to advance the science.

People have also asked how they can get involved. And while it’s a little premature for that, once we have studies approved by our institutional review boards, there will be opportunities for people to participate.

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