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New research on the relationship between cannabis use and cognitive functions

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2022-06-21-New research on the relationship between cannabis use and cognitive functions

Recent research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry closely followed nearly 1.000 individuals in New Zealand aged 3 to 45 to understand the impact of cannabis use on brain function.

The research team found that individuals who performed long-term (over several years or more) and intensively cannabis (at least weekly, although the majority in their study used more than four times a week) showed impairment in several domains of cognition.

Decreased IQ due to cannabis use

Long-term cannabis users' IQs dropped by an average of 5,5 points from childhood, and there were shortcomings in learning and processing speed compared to those who did not use cannabis. The more frequently a person used cannabis, the greater the resulting cognitive impairment, suggesting a possible causal relationship.
The study also found that people who knew these long-term cannabis users well noticed that they had developed memory and attention problems. The above findings persisted even when the study authors controlled for factors such as other drug dependence, childhood socioeconomic status, or childhood onset intelligence.

The impact of cannabis on cognitive impairment was greater than that of alcohol or tobacco use. Long-term cannabis users also had smaller hippocampi (the area of ​​the brain responsible for learning and memory). Interestingly, individuals who used cannabis less than once a week with no history of dependence had no cannabis-related cognitive impairment. This suggests that there is a range of recreational use that may not lead to long-term cognitive problems.

More studies

More studies are needed on cannabis use and brain health. The new research is just one of many studies suggesting a link between long-term heavy cannabis use and cognition. Still, future studies are needed to establish causality and examine how long-term cannabis use may affect the risk of developing dementia, as cognitive impairment in middle age is associated with higher rates of dementia.

What should you do if you experience the cognitive effects of cannabis?

Some people who use cannabis for a long time may experience 'brain fog', reduced motivation, learning difficulties or difficulty paying attention. Symptoms are usually reversible, although using products with a higher THC content may increase the risk of developing cognitive symptoms.

If you experience cannabis-related cognitive symptoms, consider the following:

  • Gradually decrease the potency (THC content) of cannabis you use or how often you use it over several weeks, especially if you have a history of cannabis withdrawal.
  • Work with your doctor. Be open with your doctor about your cognitive symptoms, as other medical or psychiatric factors may be involved. Your doctor can also help you navigate a cannabis taper safely and possibly more comfortably, using other supportive resources. Unfortunately, most patients do not feel comfortable talking to their doctor about cannabis use.
  • Give it time. It may take up to a month for you to experience improvements after lowering your dose, as cannabis can remain in the body for two to four weeks.
  • Try objective cognitive tracking. Using an app or objective test to track your brain function can be more accurate than self-observation. Your health care provider may be able to help administer intermittent cognitive assessments.
  • Consider alternative strategies. Brain function is not static, like eye color or the number of toes on our feet. Aerobic exercise and the practice of mindfulness, meditation, and psychotherapy can improve long-term cognition.

Cannabis is an exciting yet controversial topic that has generated both hype and skepticism. It is important for individuals and healthcare professionals to focus on research studies and not on speculation or personal stories. Emerging studies suggesting the link between long-term heavy cannabis use and neurocognition should be of concern to policy makers, healthcare providers and patients.

Source: health.harvard.edu (EN)

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