Cannabis use and the sperm epigenome: a budding concern?

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The United States is swiftly moving toward increased legalization of medical and recreational cannabis. Currently considered the most commonly used illicit psychoactive drug, recreational cannabis is legal in 11 states and Washington, DC, and male use is an important and understudied concern. Questions remain, however, about the potential long-term consequences of this exposure and how cannabis might impact the epigenetic integrity of sperm in such a way that could influence the health and development of offspring. This review summarizes cannabis use and potency in the USA, provides a brief overview of DNA methylation as an epigenetic mechanism that is vulnerable in sperm to environmental exposures including cannabis, and summarizes studies that have examined the effects of parental exposure to cannabis or delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis) on the epigenetic profile of the gametes and behavior of offspring. These studies have demonstrated significant changes to the sperm DNA methylome following cannabis use in humans, and THC exposure in rats. Furthermore, the use of rodent models has shown methylation and behavioral changes in rats born to fathers exposed to THC or synthetic cannabinoids, or to parents who were both exposed to THC. These data substantiate an urgent need for additional studies assessing the effects of cannabis exposure on childhood health and development. This is especially true given the current growing state of cannabis use in the USA.


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Schrott, Rose, and Susan K Murphy (2020). Cannabis use and the sperm epigenome: a budding concern?. Environmental epigenetics, 6(1). p. dvaa002. 10.1093/eep/dvaa002 Retrieved from

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Susan Kay Murphy

Associate Professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Murphy is a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and serves as Chief of the Division of Reproductive Sciences. As a molecular biologist with training in human epigenetics, her research interests are largely centered around the role of epigenetic modifications in health and disease. 

Dr. Murphy has ongoing projects on gynecologic malignancies, including approaches to eradicate ovarian cancer cells that survive chemotherapy and later give rise to recurrent disease. Dr. Murphy is actively involved in many collaborative projects relating to the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD).

Her lab is currently working on preconception environmental exposures in males, particularly on the impact of cannabis on the sperm epigenome and the potential heritability of these effects. They are also studying the epigenetic and health effects of in utero exposures, with primary focus on children from the Newborn Epigenetics STudy (NEST), a pregnancy cohort she co-founded who were recruited from central North Carolina between 2005 and 2011. Dr. Murphy and her colleagues continue to follow NEST children to determine relationships between prenatal exposures and later health outcomes.

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