Recent groundbreaking research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating compound present in the cannabis plant, has antipsychotic effects in people diagnosed with psychosis.

The researchers behind the study, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to look at changes in the brain activity of participants diagnosed with psychosis after administering a dose of CBD.

The study marks the first time an fMRI machine has been used in research concerning CBD and psychosis. The brain scan images provided the team of researchers, hailing from King’s College London and the University of Verona, unprecedented insights into which parts of the brain were affected by CBD.

“Now not only do we know that CBD works as an antipsychotic, we know it targets the areas of the brain that need to be targeted. This really gives us confidence, and it gives us scientific justification for large scale clinical trials,” said Sagnik Bhattacharyya, lead researcher on the study.

The study involved 15 participants diagnosed with psychosis who take prescription anti-psychotic medicines, and 19 healthy control participants. The participants with psychosis were each given 600 mg of CBD and then asked three hours later to carry out a memory exercise whilst having their brain scanned by the fMRI machine. The participants without diagnosed psychosis were scanned whilst performing the same exercise but did not receive a dose of CBD.

In comparing the brain scans of participants with psychosis and those without, the researchers noted different patterns of activity in the prefrontal, mediotemporal and striatal areas of the brain – those responsible for decision making, learning and memory. The images revealed the CBD acted upon these specific regions in the brain to the point where they looked near indistinguishable from the participants without psychosis.

“[Although] the sample is small, the results are compelling in that they demonstrate that CBD influences those very areas of the brain that have been shown to have unusual activity in people with psychosis,” Bhattacharyya said.

The findings add to a growing body of research indicating CBD’s potential as a safe, effective treatment for psychotic conditions. One 2012 study published in Translational Psychiatry compared CBD with a standard anti-psychotic drug in treating schizophrenia and concluded “either treatment was safe and led to significant clinical improvement, but cannabidiol displayed a markedly superior side-effect profile.”

Another study by the same team of researchers from King’s College and the University of Verona found that patients diagnosed with psychosis reported fewer psychotic symptoms when taking CBD than patients who only used their prescribed medication. These reports are what led Bhattacharyya and his team to investigate in this latest research how CBD acts on the brain in people with psychosis.

Bhattacharyya believes these recent findings could eventually lead to a new treatment option for people with various psychotic conditions. Current treatments often entail serious side-effects, especially when used over a long period of time. CBD seemingly has few, if any, side-effects which could make it a more viable option for people with chronic mental health issues.

This means the next step is an expanded clinical trial; more participants over a longer period of time.

“This study is essentially showing how CBD might work, and which effects might underlie symptoms of psychosis,” he says. “But we seldom treat psychosis giving single doses; we have to give doses for various weeks before seeing clinical, meaningful results.”