- Brains scans showed cannabis users have a less active hippocampus
- This is the area that is associated with storing and retrieving memories
- Memory problems persisted months after someone stopped smoking
Sometimes, our brains can trick us into remembering things that never happened. These memory ‘mistakes’ are seen more frequently in psychiatric disorders and old age – and now researchers have revealed why they are also more common in cannabis users. Using neuroimaging, researchers discovered that the brains of heavy cannabis have a less active hippocampus compared with the general population.
This is part of the brain that is responsible for storing and retrieving memories. The study was conducted by the Biomedical Research Institute of Hospital de Sant Pau and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Researchers compared a group of chronic users of cannabis to a healthy control group while learning a series of words.
After a few minutes they were once again shown the original words, together with new words which were either related or unrelated. All volunteers were asked to identify the words belonging to the original list. Because of a less active hippocampus, marijuana users believed they had seen the semantically related new words more often than people in the control group.
COULD LOW LEVELS OF MARIJUANA BE GOOD FOR MEMORY?
The latest study contradicts research last year which claimed marijuana, in some ways, may be good for memory.
U.S. researchers said that extremely low levels of the compound THC, the active ingredient in the drug, may slow or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
At the low doses studied, the therapeutic benefits of THC appear to outweigh the associated risks of THC toxicity and memory impairment, they found. Professor Chuanhai Cao, lead author of the study and a neuroscientist at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute in Florida, explained that THC decreases the amount of amyloid beta in the brain.
Amyloid beta is one of the factors that leads to Alzheimer’s and researchers are currently attempting to create drugs that could help stop the production of this protein. The research could lead to drugs being developed to treat the disease from related compounds that are safe and legal.
The study found memory deficiencies despite the fact that participants had stopped consuming cannabis one month before participating in the study. ‘The present results indicate that long-term heavy cannabis users are at an increased risk of experiencing memory errors even when abstinent and drug-free,’ the authors wrote.
‘These deficits show a neural basis and suggest a subtle compromise of brain mechanisms involved in reality monitoring.’
‘This lingering diminished ability to tell true from false may have medical and legal implications.’ In a similar study earlier this month, researchers found that teenagers who smoke cannabis for just three years could be damaging their long- term memory.
Participants in a study who had used the drug daily for around three years in their teens had an abnormally shaped hippocampus by the time they were in their early 20s. They also performed around 18 per cent worse in long-term memory tests than individuals who had never touched the drug.
The results were uncovered using sophisticated brain-mapping scans taken two years after they stopped smoking cannabis.
Professor John Csernansky, from Northwestern University in the US, who co-led the research, said: ‘The memory processes that appear to be affected by cannabis are ones that we use every day to solve common problems and to sustain our relationships with friends and family.’
Published: 22 April 2015. By Ellie Zolfagharifard
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