Cannabis and Memory Loss: What the Research Says
Those who use cannabis regularly have had to endure such pervasive stereotypes as being lazy, constantly hungry, and slow. Perhaps one of the most prominent assumptions about cannabis users is that they are forgetful. While these assumptions about cannabis users are widespread, it is difficult to tell if they are based in science or just the lingering cultural effects of the 1936 film “Reefer Madness.” Pop culture has continued to feed these tired tropes, leading the general population to associate forgetfulness with marijuana consumption.
The key to understanding the effects of cannabis on a person’s memory is to separate the stereotypes from the research-backed truth, but that is not a simple process. In the last several decades, growing cannabis has transformed into a perfected practice, with thousands of strains, each with its own recommended dosage and side effects. Combined with the complexity of human memory, pinpointing the effects of marijuana consumption on the brain is challenging.
Fortunately, researches have not been deterred by the difficulty of measuring the effects of cannabis on a person’s memory. Because of their dedication, there is a growing body of research that details cannabis’ impact and shows a correlation between marijuana use and an inhibited ability to recall and form memories.
The Effects of Cannabis Consumption on the Short-Term Memory
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, the dried flowers of the cannabis plant, and is the primary source of the euphoric feeling a person gets when consuming marijuana. Cannabis plants and their flowers include other potentially beneficial compounds called cannabidiol, or CBD. However, it is THC that is responsible for the memory problems associated with marijuana consumption.
THC gives a person a euphoric feeling by binding to receptors in the hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebral cortex areas of the brain. These regions of the brain are vital to forming memories and retaining information and that function is inhibited when THC is introduced. So when you inhale some smoke or vapor from a high-THC strain like gorilla glue #4 or white widow, there are two primary ways memory is affected, including poor memory recall and the formation of false memories.
Poor Memory Recall
Extreme forgetfulness is one of the most common stereotypes of “stoners.” Poor memory recall is typically an acute side effect and the person’s ability to recall memories returns once the psychoactive effects of THC have worn off.
Researches have been able to show this relationship between memory recall and cannabis by having participants in their studies take a measured dose of THC, then asking them to perform a variety of tasks that were designed to test a person’s ability to recall recent information. One such task was to look at a series of complex patterns and, after a short amount of time had passed, pick the exact match of the pattern they had just seen out of several pattern options. The study found that those who had consumed cannabis were less likely to identify the pattern correctly, indicating that THC inhibits a person’s short-term visual memory.
Similar studies have been done to test a person’s working memory. Working memory is a function of the short-term memory responsible for understanding and holding linguistic information. For example, listening to a person read a story aloud and understanding the events in the story in order. Research has concluded that THC inhibits this memory function, as well.
The Formation of False Memories
Another significant impact of THC on the human brain is the tendency of regular cannabis consumers to form false memories while still in the acute phase of THC’s effects, meaning they claim to remember something that did not happen. While this may seem like cause for serious alarm, the truth is much less nefarious. Rather than marijuana users having entirely false memories in place of what actually happened, most of the time it makes them more suggestible while under the influence.
What this means is, because THC inhibits a person’s ability to recall information, they are more likely to report false memories that were suggested or insinuated by the people around them or the person asking the question. Additionally, studies suggest that after about a week, a marijuana user’s ability to recall accurate information is the same as a non-user, essentially leveling out the effects of THC on the brain after some time has passed.
The Long-Term Effects of Cannabis Use on Memory
Long-term memory, or episodic memory, is a person’s ability to recall typical events such as who, what, when, where, and why information. Essentially, it is a person’s collection of past personal experiences that occurred at a specific place and time. Given the effects of THC on a person’s short-term memory, one would assume it would negatively impact the long-term memory, as well.
However, the findings regarding long-term memory are complex. A study published by JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that people who consumed marijuana daily had worse verbal memory in middle age than those who consumed it less or not at all. However, the difference between the two is negligible, as chronic marijuana users in the study could recall an average of 8.5 out of 15 words, while those who were not chronic users could recall 9 out of 15 words.
Though the difference between the two results is very small, researchers suggest that the longer a person consumes marijuana daily, the more significant the damage to their long-term memory may be. Despite this, marijuana consumption has not been shown to harm any other cognitive function, such as processing speed and ability to focus.
Though it is established that consuming marijuana negatively affects a person’s short-term memory, the memory is complex and the effects will not be universal across all cannabis users. In fact, some genetic and environmental factors determine what type of memory is affected and the extent of those effects.
Some researchers exploring the relationship between marijuana consumption, genetics, and memory have identified a gene that can moderate THC’s effects on verbal memory. This may be the reason for variants in memory studies performed on cannabis users, as this likely means those with the gene do not experience as much memory recall loss as those who do not have that gene.
Chronic Marijuana Consumption
There have been a series of studies testing how marijuana and THC affect a person who is a long-term, heavy marijuana user, compared to a person who uses it casually or not at all. The results have shown that after taking one single 500mg dose of THC, those who are heavy marijuana users have greater memory recall capabilities than those who are not heavy users. This suggests that heavy users build up a tolerance to the effects of cannabis, which is critical information when determining the long-term effects of chronic marijuana consumption.
Memory Impairment as a Therapy
When people think of memory impairment, they rarely view it is a beneficial side effect. However, many individuals use cannabis for its memory impairment effects, such as those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The hallmark symptom of PTSD is the affected person experiencing recurring, intrusive memories of an extremely traumatic event such as sexual assault, combat, or physical and mental abuse. Many of the more commonly prescribed medications for PTSD are addictive, including drugs in the benzodiazepine family, such as Xanax and Ativan. Seeking to avoid a dangerous drug addiction, many i49 seed growers suffering from PTSD choose to use cannabis as an alternative method of dealing with their symptoms and preliminary research supports this as a viable treatment.
The Effect of CBD on Memory
CBD is another ingredient in marijuana that is being studied for its potentially medicinal properties. At present, CBD has been proven to have no negative effects on both short-term and long-term memory. In fact, there has been a sharp increase in interest in CBD for use as a treatment for such debilitating diseases as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
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The Role of CBD in Medicine
It is well established that THC causes memory impairment, but CBD has been shown to prevent memory loss and even protect some memory functions. However, these studies also show that even a high level of CBD is not enough to counteract the negative impact of THC on a person’s memory completely. Fortunately, the ability to create strains of cannabis with specific genetics allows individuals to consume strains that are high in CBD but have little to no THC at all.
Preliminary research suggests that CBD has a direct effect on the reward center of a person’s brain, essentially reducing the person’s cravings for psychoactive drugs to which they may be addicted. Some studies involving heavy cigarette smokers have countered the preliminary research results, showing no effect on the cognitive impairments that come along with smoking cessation. However, there has been research that suggests CBD can curb cravings for more serious addictive substances such as opioids and stimulants.
Supporting Mental Health
The reason for this is that addiction and memory are closely related, specifically involving positive memories. However, CBD impacts negative memories, as well. Some clinical findings heavily suggest that CBD can reduce symptoms of emotional distress and anxiety. Additionally, CBD is shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of certain memory disorders, such as PTSD, by aiding in the elimination of traumatic and fear-based memories.
Treating Cognitive Disorders
Not only can CBD help with PTSD, but there is substantial evidence suggesting it is an effective treatment for cognitive decline. Cognitive decline, which is essentially memory loss, is something that everyone has to deal with at some point as they get older. CBD is being shown to promote neurogenesis, which will limit the decay of cognitive functions caused by aging, trauma, and disease.
Not only are high-CBD strains beneficial to the average person facing their older years, but it poses a significant benefit to those who suffer from degenerative memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. CBD is currently being analyzed by many researchers for this exact purpose.
Can CBD Enhance Memory?
It is clear that investigating human memory is complex. Even without the consumption of psychoactive substances like the THC found in many cannabis strains, peoples’ memories have been proven to be subjective and unreliable. Some studies do suggest the CBD can improve cognition overall, but there is little evidence that supports the idea that it will improve the memory of a person who is already at peak cognitive function for an adult.
The classic “stoner” trope that is perpetuated by such characters as Cheech and Chong is not the most accurate representation of the people who regularly consume cannabis. Every day, there are more doctors and scientists are turning to cannabis for its potential as a significant treatment in a wide range of neurological conditions. Research is constantly exploring unique combinations of THC and CBD, trying to get a better understanding of their interactions and role in both memory function and medicine. Currently, it is not known what combination of the two cannabinoids is needed to combat the memory impairment properties of THC.
THC indeed causes significant short-term memory impairments, but many users do not see this as a negative effect. Instead, these individuals consume cannabis for exactly this outcome, whether it be for entertainment or treatment of a major medical condition. Research has not been able to show a clear connection between long-term memory impairment and chronic use of cannabis for recreational or therapeutic purposes. While it is possible that this conclusion could still be made after further research, presently cannabis poses little threat to the overall wellbeing of a person’s cognitive function.
One major hindrance to understanding the potential benefits and side effects of cannabis consumption is the legality of cultivating and consuming marijuana in the United States. As cannabis laws change and states move to make medical and recreational cannabis legal, researchers have greater opportunities to explore the effects of THC and CBD on the human brain. However, cannabis is still federally illegal, making research a sticky situation even in states that have relaxed cannabis laws. Now that you understand the inherent risk of memory loss with cannabis use, don’t forget to complete your next order of indoor weed seeds or outdoor weed seeds to be ready for your next season’s crop.
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