For the longest time, we have been fed ideas about pot smokers being forgetful and generally lacking initiative and intelligence. Prohibition propaganda and weed focused movies and characters have portrayed smokers as dopey but studies now suggest that this isn’t the case at all. There are multiple studies that have explored the effects of cannabis on the cognitive functions in humans and the results have been very interesting and exciting. It would appear that medicinal cannabis actually improves cognitive function which is our ability to learn and act on what we know with clarity. It also relates to memory. The ramifications of this are quite profound as it indicates that the plant may be able to reverse many of the effects of aging along with degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Splendor in the Grass?
A recent study, titled “Splendor in the Grass? A Pilot Study Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana on Executive Function” was published in Frontiers in Pharmacology and illustrates the restorative power that medicinal cannabis has on the body. The study was led by Staci Gruber, PhD who is the director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program at McLean Hospital. McLean Hospital is Harvard Medical School’s largest psychiatric affiliate. It examined 24 medical cannabis patients over the course of 3 months as they participated in their medicinal cannabis program to treat various conditions.
Benefits Beyond Treating Symptoms
Throughout the 3 month period, the patients’ cognitive functions were tested using a variety of tests including the Stroop Color Word Test and Trail Making Test. It turned out that the medical cannabis was treating more than just their initial medical symptoms. The medical cannabis patients actually performed better and there was a clear improvement in all tasks that involved activity in the frontal cortex. This is the area that governs decision making, personality expression, social activity, cognitive behaviors and generally aligning thoughts and actions with internal goals. It rules our ability to make plans and predict outcomes of all kinds and adjust our behaviors and thoughts accordingly.
A Drop in Opioid Use
As well as being able to improve cognitive function, also known as “executive” function, the medical cannabis was also able to improve so much more. Patients reported that their original medical conditions were better along with noting improvements in their sleep and overall health and wellbeing. An exciting aspect of this was a decrease in the need for medications such as opioids that may have adverse side effects. “We saw a 42 percent reduction in opioid use,” reported Gruber. “This is significant, particularly for those of us in Massachusetts and other areas of the country where the opioid epidemic is ravaging so many. This preliminary finding certainly warrants deeper and broader investigation.”
Massachusetts is one of 4 states that legalized cannabis for personal use by adults over 21 last November. California, Nevada and Maine also chose to end prohibition, joining Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska and D.C. in having a legal recreational marijuana industry. 29 states have already legalized medicinal cannabis and statistics show that there is an approximate 33 percent drop in opioid related deaths in those states. There are approximately 23 percent less opioid related hospital visits. At a time where the opioid epidemic has reached such extreme proportions, this is important news.
Improved Cognitive Functions in Mice
The Harvard study is not the only one that illustrates the beneficial impact that cannabis has on cognitive function. There are several studies that show how it can improve memory and diminish symptoms relating to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Another study led by Andreas Zimmer from the University of Bonn, Germany and published in Nature Medicine showed marijuana’s ability to improve the cognitive function of mice that had decreased in function due to their age. The study focused specifically on age related decline. Once again the news was good.
Researchers gave three groups of mice low doses of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Each group represented different ages. One group was 2 months old and the other two were 12 and 18 months old, representing mature and old age. 3 different experiments were conducted on the mice. The first was a water maze that the mice had to learn to navigate. In the second, they had to locate an object and the third tested partner recognition. When the mice weren’t treated with THC, the mature and old mice performed worse. When only the mature and old mice were given the THC, they performed the same as the young mice. When all 3 groups were given THC, the mature and old groups performed much better but the young mice performed far worse.
In general, the mature and old mice who were treated with the low dose of THC performed at least as well as the young mice at any given task. Their cognitive functions, which were very poor before being given the THC, were vastly improved. It was as though they reverted back to youth. The younger mice, however, fared much worse when given the THC. Their performance declined and they did not do well.
How Medicinal Cannabis Could Improve Cognitive Functions
The human body has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) which is made of CB1 and CB2 receptors that are found all through the body and organs. The system governs health and the regulation of sleep, appetite, mood, digestion and pretty much every function of the body. Humans then create natural cannabinoids that trigger the receptors and create homeostasis in the body. Age, however, reduces the function of the ECS as less cannabinoids are produced naturally. Cannabinoids such as THC and CBD which are found in cannabis are known to restore the ECS as that trigger and regulate the CB1 and CB2 receptors. In the mice that were younger, with healthy ECS, the THC decreased performance. It was only in the mice with an impaired ECS from aging that benefits from the THC were observed.
While a lot of evidence has been gathered to show the benefits of medicinal cannabis on cognitive function much more research is needed still. Nonetheless, these studies reflect what possibilities lie ahead once we are able to understand and harness the power of cannabis.