Recent research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry closely followed nearly 1,000 individuals in New Zealand from age 3 to age 45 to understand the impact of cannabis use on brain function. The research team discovered that individuals who used cannabis long-term (for several years or more) and heavily (at least weekly, though a majority in their study used more than four times a week) exhibited impairments across several domains of cognition.
Long-term cannabis users’ IQs declined by 5.5 points on average from childhood, and there were deficits in learning and processing speed compared to people that did not use cannabis. The more frequently an individual used cannabis, the greater the resulting cognitive impairment, suggesting a potential causative link.
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 region of the brain responsible for learning and memory). Interestingly, individuals who used cannabis less than once a week with no history of developing dependence did not have cannabis-related cognitive deficits. This suggests there is a range of recreational use that may not lead to long-term cognitive issues.
I have heard many of our patients at TestSource Lab tell me that the high from marijuana when they were in college was much lower that today’s strains and research also bears this out: The average content of THC (tetra-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive and potentially addictive chemical in cannabis) in smoked whole-plant products has risen from 1% to 4% in the 1970s to 15% to 30% from today’s cannabis dispensaries. Edibles and vapes may contain even higher concentrations of THC.
Cannabis is an exciting yet controversial topic that has drawn both hype and skepticism. It is important for individuals and healthcare professionals to place emphasis on research studies and not on speculation or personal stories. Emerging studies suggesting the connection between long-term heavy use of cannabis and neurocognition should raise concern for policymakers, providers, and patients. Learn more at: Cognitive effects of long-term cannabis use in midlife – Harvard Health