While we’ve long heard that frequent use of weed by young adults could have negative impacts on their cognitive ability, a new study out of the University of Pennsylvania reveals that these claims may be overblown.
“Results indicate that previous studies of cannabis in youth may have overstated the magnitude and persistence of cognitive deficits associated with use,” reads the study.
The findings revealed that frequent cannabis users scored slightly lower on memory tests, had a harder time learning new information and had more difficulty completing higher level thinking involving problem-solving and processing information than non-cannabis users. However, these impacts disappeared almost completely if the subject abstained from cannabis products for 72 hours, suggesting that long-term impacts may, in fact, be minimal.
“Cannabis use overall seems to be associated with some cognitive deficits. However, cognitive differences between cannabis using and non-cannabis using groups tend to be relatively small,” explained J. Cobb Scott, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
The analysis was published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal and analyzed data from 69 previous studies written between 1973 and 2017 that focus on heavy recreational marijuana use of more than 2,152 younger cannabis users. An additional 6,500 participants were included in the research as comparison participants.
While Scott notes that the results of the study don’t eliminate concerns that frequent marijuana use impacts developing brains, it’s something else to consider as more research is done on the drug and its side effects.
“What I think is important here, is it gets us down the path of understanding the realistic risks of cannabis,” said Scott.
He also adds that while the uncertainty around the impacts of cannabis on youth is largely unknown because of the lack of research that’s been done on the subject, the physiological and psychological risks associated with it don’t greatly outweigh those of legal substances like alcohol and tobacco.
“As with any other substance, the more you use it, the earlier you use it, the more likely you are to have problems with it.”
So how can youth using recreational cannabis protect their mental health?
As a physician that frequently prescribes cannabis to his patients, Dr. Michael Verbora was surprised by the findings that contradicted much of the previous research on cannabis and the developing mind.
“It does surprise me a little because the message we’ve been sending out there is that there are long-term effects in young people using cannabis,” said Verbora.
Despite the recent findings, Verbora still advises users to be cautious of potential risks and take certain precautions when using recreational cannabis. For young people using the product frequently, he recommends choosing methods other than smoking it, try to find low-THC strains (the primary psychoactive in cannabis), don’t mix it with any other drugs, don’t drive, and be open with your physician about your use.
He agrees, however, these tips apply to all recreational substances including cannabis, and says he’s never known it to cause the kinds of health impacts often faced by people who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse.
“We have had cannabis around for hundreds of thousands of years. People have been using it, and I generally have never seen the horrendous outcomes that I do with other substances like opiates and alcohol.”
Bryan Hendin of Apollo Cannabis Research Clinic echoes these warnings, though notes that any impact from cannabis on adolescent brains would likely be experienced after excessively using any psychoactive product.
“Adolescence is a critical phase of brain development. As such, excessive and chronic use of most, if not all psychotropic drugs during that age may impact cognition. With that said, not all cannabis products can be painted with the same brush. Cannabis is not just one drug.”
He notes that youth should be especially cautious of cannabis strains that are heavy in THC. Strains that are taken medicinally by adolescents which are obtained from Health Canada-approved and regulated licensed producers, often contain cannabidiol (CBD) — a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis — and low amounts of THC.
“Research has shown that CBD can potentially attenuate some of the harmful effects of THC, and some studies have even shown that CBD may be beneficial for the brain as it has neuroprotective properties,” Hendin concluded.