• Marijuana: Rethinking the Link Between Recreational Use & Cognitive Function

    by Caroline Ryther
    on Dec 4th, 2018

Marijuana on your mind: Rethinking the link between recreational use and cognitive function

Marijuana has been in use for millennia, yet only during the 20th century, it has come into the public’s focus, with debates about its benefits and problems. At the beginning of the century, the recreational use began to appear, but it was in 1970 that marijuana was declared a “Schedule I substance” meaning that it had no practical medical use and that it posed a potential risk for development of severe psychological or physical dependence.

However, in recent years we’ve witnessed the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. We’ve heard compelling stories of people who have used cannabis for medical purposes and how it has helped them in reducing the effects of chemotherapy. Also, David Schmader presented interesting aspects of marijuana use during his entertaining TED talk video. On the other hand, marijuana also became popular and widely used by youth, in the form of a so-called ‘’weed culture.’’ The proponents of recreational use of cannabis have argued that it is definitely not as harmful as alcohol for example, that you cannot OD on it and that it helps to alleviate symptoms of certain illnesses. While these arguments do carry weight, if you are an adolescent or a parent of one, you should also explore what effects the potency and frequency of use have on a developing young mind (executive function and memory), as well as alterations in brain structure and function.

Some studies have shown that people who use marijuana more frequently have exhibited poorer cognitive performances, in comparison to non-users, notably in the area of executive functioning or EF (attention, decision making, risk taking, inhibition, and verbal fluency) and memory. Furthermore, those who have used marijuana at an earlier age appeared more impaired in contrast to those who have used it at an older age. Also, some studies have highlighted that lower EF appears to predict increased marijuana use. The frequent heavy use of marijuana also leads to impaired verbal learning and memory. This applied to adults and adolescents, but developing brain is more vulnerable.

When it comes to the brain structure, advanced neuroimaging techniques offer a chance to inspect the effects of marijuana use on the gray matter of the brain. Specifically, a reduction in the gray matter can occur, especially in adolescent marijuana users, yet there is a significantly reduced risk after early adulthood.  

In similar fashion, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown that prolonged marijuana use at an earlier age is related to altered activation during cognitive tasks, e.g. attention, spatial/verbal working memory, verbal learning, effective processing etc.

Another important point is the inappropriate use of marijuana, especially by persons who are already suffering from certain mental illnesses or are genetically prone to them, or if they’re using marijuana as means of coping with physical and emotional abuse or other problems.

Ergo, while marijuana has beneficial effects, it should be used with caution, especially at a young age.

If you’re a worried about marijuana use and the effects it might have on the brain, whether you’re an adult, or a concerned parent, we recommend that you get in touch with Dr. Best and the Neuroscience Center in order to get the best diagnostics and treatment.

Phone: 847-306-8938

Email: pm@mind.md

Author Caroline Ryther

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