Can You Get Stoned in Space? A New Study Says Maybe Not

Pot smoking astral adventurers have been making appearances in science fiction since at least as far back as William Gibson's space-Rastas in the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, but any reefer hounds planning on getting red-eyed on their way to the Red Planet might have to rethink.


A new study that examines the effects of cosmic radiation on neurotransmission suggests that its high-energy protons, or "subatomic speedballs," affect signaling in the brain precisely in a way that should be harshing the mellow of would-be space stoners: It screws up the endocannabinoid system.

That's the part of the neural system that responds to marijuana and gets you high. In other words, you might not be able to get stoned in space.

The study, published in the journal Brain Structure & Function, explored the effects of low-dose proton irradiation on mice, but it has implications both for getting high and for interplanetary pot policy.

"On a long trip to Mars, recreation and medical marijuana use will likely become a highly controversial issue, so I stand by the importance of this study," Stanford neuroscientist and study co-author Ivan Soltesz told ScienceBlog.

In the study, after researchers exposed the mice to the protons, they then used biochemical, electrophysiological, and imaging techniques to examine the effects on two types of cells found in the hippocampus. One of them was cannabinoid type 1 receptor expressing basket cells.

The researchers found that the radiation did affect those receptor cells. And anything messing up endocannabinoid receptors could mess up your high.

So why are scientists worrying about getting high in space? They're not, really, but they are very interested in the effect solar radiation can have a harmful effect on brain processes, including neurotransmission.

"In the not too distant future, humankind will embark on one of its greatest adventures, the travel to distant planets," the authors explained. "However, deep space travel is associated with an inevitable exposure to radiation fields. 

Previous research had shown that cosmic radiation did create disruptions in cognition and neuronal structure, but its role in altering neurotransmission is murky, and this study sought to begin to clear the waters.

"These results demonstrate that energetic charged particles at space-relevant low doses elicit surprisingly selective long-term plasticity of synaptic microcircuits in the hippocampus," the authors wrote.

The good news is that these findings may help find a way to mitigate cognitive damage during space travel.

"The magnitude and persistent nature of these alterations in synaptic function are consistent with the observed perturbations in cognitive performance after irradiation, while the high specificity of these changes indicates that it may be possible to develop targeted therapeutic interventions to decrease the risk of adverse events during interplanetary travel," they noted.

Bottom line: More research is needed before we can determine whether pot will get you spaced in space. And while we ponder the implications, those of you who have read this far deserve a little something to get you in the mood:

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