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Change the world

14/06/2024

Amid the push for cannabis legalisation globally and the escalating drug use crisis in Africa, second year PhD student in the Department of Human Physiology at Nelson Mandela University, Musa Aminu, is pursuing critical research and awareness-raising about cannabis use disorders (CUD).

He was selected to participate in the prestigious Shango Fellowship which nurtures emerging thought leaders from Africa and focuses on decolonising African research and medicine development. Musa’s participation contributes to continent-wide discussions surrounding cannabis legalisation and cannabis-associated psychological, sociological and neurological disorders.

“I am looking at the cellular and molecular processes of cannabis use, especially in people who suffer from depression and anxiety or have a history of mental illness as they are more susceptible to coming down with CUD,” Aminu explains. The aim is to understand how these disorders impact each other and to delineate the pathways of the condition in the brain, then to use the knowledge to come up with treatments.”

There is a scarcity of data on the effects of cannabis on populations in Africa. “We need to build up this body of research and at the same time we need to be careful about the type of policies we adopt as most of the research and data we reference is coming from outside of Africa,” explains Aminu who grew up in Nigeria.

Cannabis legalisation is presented as an opportunity for economic empowerment “and medical cannabis has shown to have positive uses in managing certain disease conditions, but more research needs to go into the safety profiles of cannabis constituents harnessed for medicines, as well as research that identifies what makes for vulnerability in some individuals,” he explains.

Aminu is committed to drawing on science to work with communities and develop programmes that address the public health needs in Africa where the majority of people do not have medical aids or access to drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities.

He speaks from personal experience having struggled from the age of 13 with a drug use disorder for nearly a decade. “I used a number of drugs, but cannabis was the most accessible and cheapest in my community and I used it daily more than any other drug and developed CUD.”

He says he started with cigarettes and alcohol “which are legal drugs, but I was exposed to cannabis before anything more serious. Cannabis made me more comfortable to take other drugs, mostly opioids.”

As a consequence, he was unable to focus at school and did not perform as well as he did before he started using drugs. “One of the issues is that it impaired my memory for a long while, even after I became sober, and for my whole first degree I struggled with this. Fortunately my memory has since restored,” he explains.

“I gave up using because I got to a point where I felt my life was worth more than just taking drugs. I am fortunate that I grew up in a family with very high values and I would have battled to give up without their support. I have now been drug-free for 14 years and I am dedicated to helping other people with similar struggles. I have seen so many people in African countries come down with CUD, including in South Africa.”

This has inspired his career path to understand the psycho-social aspects of drug dependency and its neuro-biological correlates, and use this knowledge to develop novel pharmacotherapeutics. His research is being supervised by Dr Duyilemi Chris Ajonijebu from Nelson Mandela University and co-supervised by Professor William Daniels from Wits University.

Dr Ajonijebu who is a behavioural neuroscientist says that while they cannot make too many conclusions at this stage because Aminu is still in the early stages of the research, but what they do know is that the mesocorticolimbic dopamine reward pathway in the brain becomes impaired following prolonged exposure to cannabis and other drugs, and this leads people to increasingly taking more the next time they want to get ‘high’. This impairment can happen to anyone who is susceptible.

“What we have also found is that some of the brain pathways indicated in CUD are similar to those in depression and anxiety and can become so imprinted in one’s genes at the cellular level that it becomes transferrable across generations,” Aminu elaborates. “What this means is one’s offspring may also inherit the tendency to come down with the same syndromes.”

In addition to his research, Aminu works with NGOs providing mental health services in Nigeria and South Africa, and has been involved in several impactful initiatives as an implementing partner of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “Social interaction is one of the biggest factors to break the cycles of drug abuse, and you have to make a change to your lifestyle and start socialising with different people,” says Aminu whose contribution includes developing prevention modules and communication strategies to inform public health opinions throughout Africa.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777
Zandile.Mbabela@mandela.ac.za