How Cannabis Affects Our Memory
Talk to any stoner and you’re bound to hear stories of things they’ve done while high and scatterbrained.
Weed is a mind-altering substance after all, and it has the unique ability to make us think and do things we normally wouldn’t while sober.
Take Afroman’s “Because I Got High,” for example. While satirical in nature, it has remained a staple of cannabis culture for its comical ring of truth.
Weed’s ability to make us forget is one of the reasons why people love it so much. For many, there’s nothing better than lighting a bowl after a long day and forgetting about their problems.
There’s no doubt that cannabis temporarily alters our perception. Almost all research proves this to some extent. The driving force behind this is marijuana’s main chemical, THC.
THC is psychoactive, meaning when we ingest or smoke it, it attaches to receptors in our brains — particularly in our cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Both of these regions are responsible for our memory and learning.
Everything that goes up, must come down, though. Every stoner knows that eventually the high wears off. But, does its effect on our brain linger long after the fact? Does cannabis affect memory?
What are memories?
Memory is a vital part of being human. It’s what helps us make decisions, recall important information, and interact with others in meaningful ways.
We are bombarded with tons of information on a daily basis and our brain has a divine process of storing this. Generally speaking, memories can be categorized into two groups: short-term and long-term.
When we experience things, particularly those which are useful to us, our brain goes through a process of “encoding.” In other words, a unique pattern of neurons is fired, and when these neurons are activated for a second time, a memory forms.
With every reactivation, the pattern of neurons strengthens the connections between them, known as synapses, and they grow stronger. That’s why reviewing and rehearsing information improves the ability to remember it.
New memories –which haven’t been strengthened by reactivation– are very fragile. They can be easily disrupted by lack of sleep or intoxication. When they are not reactivated, they eventually become lost. Those which have been strengthened over time become more resilient and eventually turn into long-term memories.
The Science of Cannabis and Memory
There’s enough research (and stoner stories) that prove cannabis affects our short-term memory and cognitive function. However, when it comes to our understanding of its long-term effects, it’s a bit more nuanced.
Much of the research done on cannabis and long-term memory studies animal usage or human usage through adolescence.
For instance, one study found that rats exposed to THC soon after birth showed notable problems with learning and memory tasks. Yet when this study was replicated on adult rats, they found little to no difference.
In another study involving 4,000 young adults tracked over a 25-year period, scientists found that cumulative lifetime exposure to cannabis was associated with lower scores on verbal memory. However, researchers did not find any evidence to suggest that it affected cognitive abilities such as processing speed or executive function.
While studies like these certainly pave a path towards understanding cannabis and memory more, it doesn’t tell the full story. It goes without saying, adolescent brains (which haven’t fully developed) should not partake in mind-altering substances. And unfortunately, not enough research has been done on responsible adult subjects to draw any conclusions.
While we definitely have a ways to go before we can know for certain if cannabis affects memory, there have been significant findings of weed’s most prominent cannabinoids that point in a positive direction.
The CBD Paradox
Our understanding of the effects of cannabis on memory is that it’s primarily from how weed interacts with our hippocampus. What is perplexing for researchers though is that the two main cannabinoids in marijuana affect the hippocampus differently.
THC, the primary chemical in weed, binds to the CB1 receptors in the hippocampus. When this happens, it temporarily distorts our short-term memory, making it hard to concentrate or recall information.
On the other hand, CBD seemingly affects our brain in the opposite way. New research on human subjects shows that CBD increases blood flow to the hippocampus. This additional blood flow has been associated with better memory performance.
CBD is also considered neuroprotective, meaning it can help protect the neurons responsible for maintaining cognitive function from damage and degeneration. This can play an essential role in treating mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In fact, a 2016 study found that regular CBD use can help slow or potentially reverse the loss of memory function associated with dementia. The study also found that CBD may reduce memory impairment by helping increase the connection between neurons.
So, Does Cannabis Affect Memory?
While there’s little doubt that cannabis can alter or distort memory and perception, establishing cannabis as something that affects long-term memory is tricky. Cannabis itself is a broad category containing many strains and forms, all of which affect the body differently. Ask any regular users and they will tell you that a CBD-dominant strain of flower does not feel the same as a THC tincture.
Similarly, an individual’s own physiology plays a huge role in how cannabis affects the body — hence why weed makes some people anxious.
Many studies are also limited by the fact that the study participants use multiple substances, and there is often limited data about the subject’s health or mental state prior to the study. Factors like genetics, age, socioeconomic status, and geographical region all play a role in this as well.
Of course, new research is conducted every day and our understanding of cannabis and memory will become clearer with time.
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