The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth ~ Ecclesiastes 7:4

Study Shows Marijuana Use Causes Brain Damage

Posted: 2015-04-05

Cognitive abnormalities and cannabis use



Nadia SolowijI,II; Nicole PesaI

ISchool of Psychology, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia
IISchizophrenia Research Institute, Sydney, Australia





OBJECTIVE: Evidence that cannabis use impairs cognitive function in humans has been accumulating in recent decades. The purpose of this overview is to update knowledge in this area with new findings from the most recent literature. 
 Literature searches were conducted using the Web of Science database up to February 2010. The terms searched were: "cannabi*" or "marijuana", and "cogniti*" or "memory" or "attention" or "executive function", and human studies were reviewed preferentially over the animal literature. 
 Cannabis use impairs memory, attention, inhibitory control, executive functions and decision making, both during the period of acute intoxication and beyond, persisting for hours, days, weeks or more after the last use of cannabis. Pharmacological challenge studies in humans are elucidating the nature and neural substrates of cognitive changes associated with various cannabinoids. Long-term or heavy cannabis use appears to result in longer-lasting cognitive abnormalities and possibly structural brain alterations. Greater adverse cognitive effects are associated with cannabis use commencing in early adolescence. 
CONCLUSION: The endogenous cannabinoid system is involved in regulatory neural mechanisms that modulate processes underlying a range of cognitive functions that are impaired by cannabis. Deficits in human users most likely therefore reflect neuroadaptations and altered functioning of the endogenous cannabinoid system.

Descriptors: Cannabis; Cannabinoids; Cognition; Physiological processes/drug effects; Neurobehavioral manifestations




Concerns regarding the adverse consequences of cannabis use continue to grow. This is well founded given thatcannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in the world, with use often beginning in adolescence, a key period for neural and psychosocial development.

While the cognitively impairing effects of cannabis during acute intoxication have been acknowledged for some time, an accumulating body of evidence indicates that long-term or heavy cannabis use results in definite but subtle cognitive impairments that persist beyond the period of acute intoxication. The extent to which such deficits persist in the longer-term remains a controversial area for debate within the field of human cannabisresearch. Some studies demonstrate cognitive dysfunction in cannabis users during intoxication and for several hours following smoking,1,2 others show impairment for a few days,3,4 and yet others have shown lasting impairments for more than a month following cessation of use.5 Understanding the persistence of cognitive deficits associated with cannabis use is not a simple matter of organising the literature by cognitive domains to determine which kinds of tasks may elicit shorter- or longer-lasting effects of cannabis, because comparisons across studies are very much confounded by varying levels of exposure to cannabis (if not other substances as well). Elucidating the nature and extent of cognitive dysfunction resulting from cannabis use will require significant further research to determine the parameters of use that result in cognitive deficits across a range of tasks and cognitive domains.

Various parameters of cannabis use and their relationship to cognitive impairment can be examined when looking at deficits that persist for a period of 24 hours or longer. Relationships between cognitive performance and frequency of cannabis use may indicate a residual effect of acute or chronic intoxication that would likely dissipate with the reduction or cessation of use. Associations with the dose of cannabis used might similarly reflect a residual effect, or in the case of cumulative dose of exposure, may indicate more enduring dose-related brain changes. Associations with duration of use imply a more enduring impairment, rather than one resulting from cannabinoid residues, and one which likely reflects actual alterations to brain function over the long term and gradual neuroadaptation. The age of onset of cannabis use has received much attention in recent years. This is in light of evidence that the age of initiation of cannabis use is decreasing,6-9 with concerns regarding exposure during the critical neurodevelopmental period of early adolescence and a recognition that the adolescent brain is more susceptible to drug insult.10

The extent to which cognitive deficits resulting from cannabis may be reversible upon cessation of use is inconclusive. One study suggests function is recovered within one month of abstinence,3 another study indicates that recovery does not occur after 28 days of monitored abstinence,5 and others suggest that partial recovery may occur.11,12 With the recent reporting of regional structural brain changes in long-term heavy cannabis users (reduction in hippocampal and amygdala volumes),13 research has yet to examine the extent to which such alterations may be reversible with abstinence.

Cognitive impairment in cannabis users is most often detected in memory, attention and inhibitory control and executive functions. There is no doubt that the endogenous cannabinoid system plays a critical role in these functions and that their disruption by acute cannabis administration is cannabinoid receptor (CB1) mediated. Novel and specific roles of different cannabinoids in cannabis plant matter [eg. THC versus cannabidiol (CBD)] are increasingly being elucidated. We have previously reviewed the literature to 2007 in the context of the similarity between cognitive deficits in cannabis users and those observed in schizophrenia14 and as specific to memory function.15 This paper will update our knowledge with evidence from the most recent studies of cognitive function in human users with a focus on the long-term effects of cannabis use. We also consider recent research elucidating the effects of acute cannabis administration in humans, studies of brain structure and function, and in brief, evidence from animal studies of acute and chronic administration of cannabinoids. We group the studies reviewed according to the primary cognitive domains identified as being affected by cannabis: attention, inhibition, working memory/executive functions and verbal memory.



Literature searches were conducted using the Web of Science database from January 2007 through February 2010 to update previous reviews performed by the authors with select literature to incorporate in this specific overview of the area. The terms searched were: "cannabi*" or "marijuana" and "cogniti*" or "memory" or "attention" or "executive function" and human literature was reviewed preferentially over animal literature.



1. Acute effects on human cognition

During the acute intoxication, cannabis induces perceptual distortions, and impairs memory and concentration. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in examining the acute effects of cannabinoids on cognition in humans, with greater application of prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over designs, and with particular interest in relation to understanding the psychotomimetic effects of cannabis.

A range of attentional processes are impaired by cannabis acutely. Impaired performance on sustained attention (eg. on continuous performance tasks), selective, focused and divided attention tasks, as well as in preattentive sensory memory have been demonstrated following acute doses of cannabis (THC or cannabis extract) to humans.16-19 Impaired performance, in terms of accuracy, increased error rates and slowed reaction times, has been shown to be dose-related in some studies.18 Tolerance may develop to some of the acute effects ofcannabis in regular users. For example, Ramaekers et al. found impaired performance on a divided attention task following high dose 500µg/kg THC only in occasional but not heavy users, whereas both occasional and heavy users exhibited inhibitory control deficits in a Stop Signal task.19 Altered inhibitory processing is evident following acute intoxication, in particular through impulsive responding.20 Hart et al. found evidence of a greater incidence of premature responding during acute intoxication in a range of tasks, discussing this in terms of failures of inhibitory control over inappropriate responses.21 Acute administration of THC increased impulsive responding on a Stop Signal Task, but did not affect Go/NoGo task performance in one study,20 although McGuire et al. showed in an imaging study that THC attenuated activation in the right inferior frontal cortex during a Go/NoGo task.22

O'Leary et al. showed that 20mg of THC had dramatic effects in occasional cannabis users on regional cerebral blood flow during the performance of a dichotic auditory selective attention task, but that these changes were not task-related.17 Acute effects of cannabinoids on electrophysiology have been demonstrated in infrequentcannabis users for the mismatch negativity (MMN) component of the event-related potential (ERP) (MMN being an index of preattentive sensory memory)23 and the P300 component (an index of the allocation of attentional resources and updating of memory traces).24 Interestingly, Juckel et al.23 found no effect of a relatively low dose of THC alone (10mg) on the mismatch negativity but an enhancement of the component when THC was co-administered with 5.4mg CBD, pertinent to the proposed antipsychotic properties of CBD. Mismatch negativity is diminished in people with schizophrenia.25,26 On the other hand, Roser et al.24 showed with the same doses that both THC alone and THC with CBD reduced the auditory P300 amplitude, which is also known to be reduced in schizophrenia and other clinical populations.

D'Souza et al. conducted a rigorous investigation of the effects of intravenous THC administered to healthy volunteers who had experience with cannabis use but who were not heavy users.27 THC induced transient positive and negative schizophrenia-like symptoms and impaired working memory, verbal memory, distractibility and verbal fluency. Similarly, Morrison et al. report induction of positive psychotic symptoms and deficits in verbal episodic memory and executive function following administration of intravenous THC.28 Short-term memory problems are among the most frequently self-reported consequences of cannabis use by individuals who use the drug and are commonly reported reasons for seeking to quit or reduce cannabis use. Deficits in verbal learning and memory are perhaps the most robust impairments associated with acute cannabis use2,16,27-29 and impaired immediate and delayed free recall of information was emphasised in one recent review of the acute effects ofcannabis on memory function,29 while another described evidence for difficulties in manipulating the contents of working memory, failure to use semantic processing and organisation to optimise episodic memory encoding, and impaired retrieval performance.30

Ilan et al. found that acute intoxication resulted in greater intrusion errors during recognition memory, and those subjects who were most affected by cannabis showed a reduced ERP difference between previously studied words and new distractor words, suggesting a disruption of neural mechanisms underlying memory for recent study episodes.16 Curran et al.2 found that a high dose of THC (15mg) resulted in no learning occurring over a 3-trial selective reminding task, while Bhattacharyya and McGuire et al. reported a series of neuroimaging studies of the effects of orally administered 10mg THC or 600mg CBD on the neural bases of verbal learning.22,31,32 They found that the effects of cannabis on verbal learning were mediated through its influence on left temporal activity (particularly parahippocampal), with modulation also of medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate activity, during encoding or retrieval of information. These studies also elucidated the neural basis of the anxiogenic or anxiolytic effects of THC and CBD, respectively, as pertinent to understanding the propensity for cannabis to induce psychotic symptoms. Other recent neuroimaging studies of acute administration effects of cannabioids have been reviewed by Martin-Santos et al.33

Working memory is disrupted by acute cannabis use.16,27,34 Performance, electroencephalogram (EEG), and ERP measures were impaired on a spatial n-back task after smoked cannabis,16 and acute administration of THC impaired delay-dependent discrimination within working memory in a delayed matching to sample task.34Conversely, in another study, acute THC administration was found to spare working memory but impair episodic memory in infrequent cannabis users, with no residual effects 24 or 48 hours later.21 Regular but infrequentcannabis users showed dose-dependently impaired performance (greater errors) on a Sternberg memory task following acute administration of THC17 and these have been associated with reduced frontal-midline EEG theta power.35

Thus, further evidence has accumulated for a disruption of attention, memory, and inhibitory control following acute administration of cannabis to humans, with some elucidation of the neural substrates of these effects, including evidence of differential effects of different cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD). It appears also that the response to acute cannabinoid administration is mediated by cannabis use history and the development of tolerance to the acute effects in some cognitive tasks, but insufficient research has determined in any systematic way the parameters of cannabis use that lead to the development of tolerance, the doses that may or may not elicit impaired performance in regular users, or the cognitive tasks that are amenable to tolerance. For example, Boucher et al. showed that impairments in spatial working memory in rats are resistant to tolerance after extended administration of THC.36 Nor has research determined whether or how regular users may develop compensatory strategies during the acute intoxication to facilitate performance that might otherwise be impaired. For example, in a risky decision-making task, Rogers et al. showed a reduction of risky behaviour following low dose sublingual administration of THC to healthy young adults (not regular cannabis users), with an adoption of more cautious cognitive strategies to compensate for the perceived disruption of effective decision making bycannabis.37 Regular users, due to their greater experience with cannabis, might be more likely to develop alternate compensatory strategies, but this hypothesis remains to be tested. Another study of decision making as assessed by the Iowa Gambling Task found no disruption to risky behaviour, only a slowing of performance, in daily cannabis users during acute intoxication.38

2. Long-term effects on human cognition

Studies of long-term and heavy cannabis users, tested in the unintoxicated state, have continued to investigate residual or persistent effects of cannabis on cognitive function, with gradually greater control over confounds, and more attention to the parameters of cannabis use.

1) Attention

Sustained attention, most often measured by continuous performance tasks (CPTs), is inconsistently impaired. Pope et al. found performance on CPTs to be insensitive to chronic cannabis use in adults,3 but Jacobsen et al. found that adolescent cannabis users made significantly more errors than non-using controls and increased errors trended toward an association with greater exposure to cannabis.39 A recent study examined sustained attention in 132 long-term cannabis users divided into an early onset group (those who had commenced cannabis use prior to the age of 15 years) and a late onset group (³ 15 years).40 Early onset users performed significantly worse on the sustained attention task, with no performance differences between the late onset group and controls. However, even in the absence of overt performance deficits, lower glucose metabolism in orbitofrontal, temporal, hippocampal and parahippocampal regions was observed during CPT performance in regular cannabis users.41 A study of preattentive pre-pulse inhibition (PPI) attributed poor performance by chronic cannabis users to deficits in sustained attention, which were also associated with greater frequency of cannabis use.42

Selective and divided attention deficits in chronic cannabis users have been shown to be related to duration, frequency, and age of onset of use.11,12,43-48 Long-term users have difficulty filtering out irrelevant information, a deficit that became more pronounced the longer that cannabis had been used.11,12,43,44,46 Further, only partial recovery was evident after a mean abstinence period of two years and no improvement with increasing months of abstinence, suggesting partial recovery may occur relatively soon after cessation of use and enduring impairment may reflect longer-lasting neuroadaptations.11,12 Early onset of cannabis use (i.e. prior to 16 years) was a strong predictor of attentional deficits during adulthood,47 and even relatively light use of once a week was related to some attentional dysfunction in young adults.48 Heavy users also showed a slowing of information processing during selective attention, as indexed by the P300 component which became increasingly delayed the more frequently that cannabis was used.44,46 This research provided evidence of differential deficits associated with frequency versus duration of cannabis use, reflecting shorter- versus longer-lasting effects.44,46 P300 amplitude, thought to reflect the allocation of attentional resources and reflect inhibitory processes, has also been found to be reduced in early onset users,49 as well as in adult cannabis users.43,46

2) Inhibition

As cited above under acute effects, impaired inhibitory processing can be assessed through behavioural tasks such as the Stroop, Go/NoGo and a variety of decision-making and gambling tasks, and is also impaired in long-term cannabis users.4,5,50-55 Such tasks require the selection of an appropriate response whilst simultaneously inhibiting the inappropriate response. It has been suggested that the endocannabinoid system may modulate dopaminergic prefrontal cortical and accumbal activity and contribute to inappropriate incentive salience to irrelevant stimuli, which may underlie attentional and inhibitory processing and decision-making deficits.14,56,57Imaging studies show altered dorsolateral prefrontal cortical (DLPFC) and anterior cingulate (ACC) activation during the interference condition of the Stroop Task, despite reasonable task performance in cannabis users54and 1-month abstinent cannabis users.50 Performance on the Stroop task is inconsistently impaired in chroniccannabis users,3-5,40,46 but poorer performance has been associated with various parameters of use (duration, dose, early onset)4,5,40,58 that may interact with low IQ,5 and with altered electrophysiology.58 Similarly, in a Go/NoGo task, adolescent cannabis users' task performance was adequate following one month abstinence, however altered activation was observed in frontal and parietal brain regions, with users requiring increased neural effort during the inhibition condition to maintain performance levels.59 In chronic adult users also with adequate inhibitory control performance, commission errors increased and a diminished capacity for behaviour monitoring and error-awareness was associated with hypoactivity in the ACC and right insula.55

3) Working memory and other executive functions

Working memory is the temporary encoding and manipulation of information that is a core component of executive functions of cognition; the involvement of the cannabinoid system in working memory has been well documented.14,57 Executive function tasks have been found to be impaired in both acute and chronic cannabisuse (e.g. verbal fluency, Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, Ravens Progressive Matrices, Tower of London),3-5,60-62but few studies have addressed working memory directly in cannabis users and this is an area that is receiving increasing interest. Both adolescent and adult chronic cannabis users have shown impaired working memory on several measures from the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) including Rapid Visual Information Processing, Pattern Recognition Memory, Spatial Recognition Memory, Spatial Span, Spatial Working Memory and Visuospatial Paired Associate Learning.63,64 Impairments in visuospatial working memory may in part be due to deficits in basic temporal processing of saccades during oculomotor function.65 Performance on an n-back auditory working memory task was shown to be impaired as memory load increased in abstinent adolescentcannabis users, with some evidence of altered regional brain activation emerging during nicotine withdrawal.66Other tasks such as the Sternberg working memory task have shown no performance deficits in abstinent adolescents or young adults, but altered regional brain activation (prefrontal and parietal) that was related to task novelty, as opposed to practice, was reflective of greater effort being required to achieve the task.67,68Further neuroimaging studies indicate that cannabis users recruit additional brain regions in a compensatory manner in order to achieve adequate performance on working memory tasks.33,69,70

In a recent study of verbal fluency, a task that relies heavily on executive functions, McHale et al. found that young adult cannabis users with recent use in the past week generated fewer words than those abstinent for at least one week, and both generated fewer words than non-user controls.62 The authors suggested some recovery of cognitive ability with abstinence, but this may have been confounded by frequency of use as the abstinent group comprised twice/weekly users, whereas users in the recent use group smoked 5-6 times/week.

4) Verbal memory and other memory processes

Verbal memory is consistently impaired in chronic cannabis users, with significantly impaired performance on word list learning tasks (e.g. Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Task (RAVLT), the California Verbal Learning Task (CVLT), and Buschke's Selective Reminding Task).4,5,46,60,71-73 These studies have been extensively reviewed elsewhere, together with some early neuroimaging studies of verbal memory in cannabis users.14,15,46,73,74 Overall, the evidence suggests that long-term or heavy cannabis users show impaired encoding, storage, manipulation and retrieval mechanisms.15 Users learn fewer words across trials and recall fewer words particularly after interference or delay. Several studies have shown that these deficits are variously attributed to duration ofcannabis use,4 frequency of use,3 or cumulative dosage effects.5 Some studies have shown recovery of memory function following a period of 28 days abstinence,3 others have shown that such deficits persist after this period,5 while others suggest at least partial recovery (Solowij, unpublished data). In the study that showed recovery, this was less apparent when cannabis use was commenced at an early age.61 Verbal memory was found to be impaired in adolescent cannabis users63 and minimum 23 day-abstinent adolescents and associated with lifetime episodes of use.75 Prospective memory has been demonstrated to be impaired in adolescent76 and young adult users,62,76 particularly time-based prospective memory.62

Recent neuroimaging studies have sought to elucidate the acute effects of THC and other cannabinoids (eg. CBD) on neural substrates subserving verbal memory, as discussed above,32,33 or attempted to relate brain structural changes in cannabis users to verbal memory deficits. For example, Yücel et al. found significantly reduced hippocampal volumes in long-term heavy cannabis users, who were also significantly impaired on the RAVLT, but memory performance was unrelated to hippocampal volumes.13 Such complex verbal learning tasks likely involve functional connectivity across a wide range of brain regions, and impaired performance is likely to be associated more with the functional activation of those regions, rather than their structure. A recent electrophysiological study in chronic users found poor word recall and alteration of the ERP subsequent memory effect during encoding, a component thought to originate in the hippocampal region, and this alteration was associated with a longer duration of cannabis use and an earlier onset of use.77

More specific hippocampal-dependent tasks, such as pictorial associative memory tasks, have also been investigated in one week abstinent cannabis users.78,79 Task performance did not differ between moderately-using young adults and non-user controls but recall accuracy decreased as a function of exposure to cannabis, and decreased activation was observed in users in bilateral parahippocampal regions and in the right DLPFC during learning.78 However, a study of adolescents found increased activation in the fusiform/parahippocampal area, inferior frontal gyrus, DLPFC, superior parietal cortex and the ACC,79 suggestive of increased neural effort. A study of hippocampal-dependent face-name learning in young adult frequent users found impaired learning, short- and long-term memory, and hypoactivation of frontal and temporal regions with concomitant hyperactivation of parahippocampal regions during learning, reflective of both functional deficits and compensatory processes.80When different studies have shown hypoactivation or hyperactivation in the same regions during performance of similar tasks (eg. Stroop),50,54 this may be due to variable parameters of cannabis use, such as the extent of exposure or age of onset, but further research is required to understand when and under what conditions increased or decreased activation is likely to manifest as well as the extent to which other brain regions are recruited to compensate for inefficiency.

5) Other cognitive functions

Cannabis alters the perception of time, both during the acute intoxication and in some studies of chronic users.4,21,46,57 Typically, time is underestimated – the subjective experience is of time passing more slowly. Time estimation involves the ability to judge and plan the temporal order of behavioural events in order to allow the successful adaptation of behaviour.57 These processes may be underpinned by cannabinoid modulation of cortical glutamatergic and striatal dopaminergic transmission, and the neural substrates implicated include the cerebellum, basal ganglia, prefrontal cortex, and parietal cortex.57 Chronic cannabis users have been shown to be impaired in a classical delayed eye-blink conditioning task that reflects cerebellar functional integrity (cerebellar-dependent associative learning),81 and recent data suggest cerebellar structural alterations in chronic cannabis users.82

Since cannabis alters mood during the acute intoxication, interest has grown in examining emotion and affect processing in chronic cannabis users. Gruber et al. examined regional brain activation to masked affective stimuli in heavy cannabis users and found altered frontal and limbic activity, with decreased activation of anterior cingulate and amygdala regions compared to controls, and differential effects for masked happy versus angry faces.83 Two studies of acute cannabis administration also found modulation of amygdala activity during processing of fearful faces.84,85 We reported significantly reduced amygdala volumes in long-term heavy cannabisusers13 but it is not yet known whether this is associated with emotional or affect processing deficits. Altered affective processing may pose difficulties for effective communication and decision making, particularly if cingulate driven inhibition of inappropriate emotional responses became problematic. Other recent neuroimaging research has examined reward processing mechanisms in chronic users, showing increased cerebellar and ventrostriatal activation during reward anticipation, of which the latter was correlated with the duration ofcannabis use and lifetime dose of exposure.86 In a study of neural activation underlying motor function, chroniccannabis users showed diminished activity of the supplementary motor cortex and area BA32, persisting after 28 days of abstinence, despite adequate response execution,87 indicating incomplete recovery of optimal motor planning and execution.

3. Brain structure and function

Evidence for structural brain changes in cannabis users has been lacking: a number of studies have found no or few global or regional changes in brain tissue volume or composition,78,88,89 but some found grey and white matter density changes globally90 or in parahippocampal areas.91 In a recent review92 we examined the evidence for structural brain alterations in cannabis users and found that of 13 studies, the majority using MRI, the evidence was inconsistent. Where differences were found between users and non-users, they were most apparent in association with greater dose of exposure to cannabis and were most often localised to the hippocampal region.

Using more sensitive measures and assessing cannabis users with far greater exposure to cannabis than previous studies, a recent study from our own group13 found significant reduction of bilateral hippocampal (12%) and amygdala (7%) volumes in adults with a mean 20 years of near daily use compared to age, gender, and IQ matched non-user controls. The reduction of left hippocampus was dose-related, correlating with the cumulative dose of exposure to cannabis over the past 10 years, suggesting a causal effect. These results accord with evidence of hippocampal toxicity from the animal literature where animals were exposed to similar large doses over comparable proportions of their lifespan and showed decreases in neuronal volume, neuronal and synaptic density, and dendritic length of CA3 pyramidal neurons.93-96 That the cannabis users of our study had used three times more cannabis over their lifespan than those of a study of users with a similar duration of use but no hippocampal alteration observed,97 suggests that there may a threshold of cumulative exposure beyond which these changes in the brain may manifest.

Age of onset of cannabis use may also be a critical factor, with potentially greater deleterious effects to the brain when cannabis use is commenced during significant periods of neurodevelopment, such as adolescence. Early onset cannabis users (before age 17) were found to have smaller whole brain volumes, lower percent cortical grey matter, higher percent white matter and increased cerebral blood flow compared to later onset users.90 A recent study has reported altered cortical gyrification in the frontal lobe and abnormal age-related changes to gyrification and cortical thickness in adolescent and young adult users.98

Several studies have now reported on diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) measures of white matter structural integrity in cannabis users. Two studies found few differences between cannabis users and controls,54,99 whereas increasing evidence for pathology has come from more recent studies of young adult100,101 and adolescent102,103 cannabis users, in the corpus callosum and various fronto-temporal, occipito-frontal and posterior connections that develop during adolescence. It is suggested that cannabis use, particularly during adolescence, may affect the trajectory of normal brain maturation resulting in white matter aberrations, which may underlie compromised cognitive processing. We have also reported cerebellar white matter reduction in adult long-term heavy users.82

Further evidence of diminished neuronal and axonal integrity comes from a magnetic resonance spectroscopic study showing dose-related changes in DLPFC, ACC and putamen/globus pallidum, but not hippocampus.104Changes in regional cerebral blood volume during 28 days of supervised abstinence have been reported, with some evidence for frontal normalisation with continued abstinence, but persistence of alterations in temporal and cerebellar regions.105 Acute and chronic effects of cannabis have also been examined on levels of nerve growth factor and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in serum, showing some evidence of lowered resting levels incannabis users,106,107 and cannabinoid modulation of these proteins is evident from a growing number of preclinical studies.

4. Animal research

A wealth of preclinical research now shows an unequivocal role for the endogenous cannabinoid system in attention, memory, executive functions, inhibitory control, and multiple other cognitive processes, and that these are impaired following both acute and chronic cannabinoid administration.14,57,108,109 Even a single administration of an ultra-low dose of THC (0.001-0.002mg/kg) has been shown to result in long-term cognitive impairments in mice (3 weeks to 4 months post-injection).110,111

Animal studies support the notion that the developing brain is more susceptible to the acute and chronic effects of exogenous cannabinoids, particularly the hippocampus.112-114 Evidence is building from studies in which animals have been exposed prenatally or during the pubertal/adolescent period, with greater immediate adverse effects on cognition and behaviour observed in comparison to animals exposed during adulthood, as well as such effects persisting into adulthood with no further cannabinoid exposure.10,112-117

Cannabinoid effects are prominent in the hippocampus118,119 and depend on interactions with GABA(A) receptors.120 Further, modulatory mechanisms of the endocannabinoid system on prefrontal cortical and striatal dopamine and glutamate transmission are strongly supported by preclinical evidence.57 In line with human studies, potentiation and antagonism of cannabinoid-induced spatial working memory deficits in rats have also been shown to be dependent on the ratio between THC and CBD.121



There is good evidence now that long-term heavy cannabis use results in cognitive deficits that have been shown to increase as a function of frequency, duration, dose, and age of onset of cannabis use. There is growing recognition that cannabis users are impaired on many of the same types of cognitive tests on which people with schizophrenia are also impaired,14 and recent research has sought to elucidate the neural substrates of impaired cognition during acute intoxication. These research directions will inform the mechanisms by which cannabis may trigger psychotic symptoms or episodes, as the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia is compelling122,123 and considered a significant public health concern. The endogenous cannabinoid system is altered in schizophrenia124,125 but insufficient research has addressed the nature of alterations to this system following chronic cannabis use in otherwise healthy humans.

The endocannabinoid system appears to be unequivocally involved, either directly or indirectly (through interactions with other neuromodulators), in the cognitive deficits resulting from cannabis exposure.57,113 Its dysfunction may be inferred from cannabinoid challenge studies and research with chronic cannabis users. Future research utilising CB1 receptor probes and improved analytic techniques for assessing endocannabinoids in humans125 should enhance our understanding of the role of this system in cognitive impairment. There are individual differences in response to cannabis in the short- and long-term, and understanding what constitutes a susceptibility to greater adverse effects126 must be a priority for further research. Genetic research will inform specific vulnerabilities toward the development of cognitive deficits following exposure to cannabis, as have been identified already in relation to variations in the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT Val158Met) gene, involved in regulating dopaminergic transmission and metabolism.127 There is some evidence for structural brain changes in long-term heavy cannabis users and animal research continues to explicate the mechanisms of action of cannabinoids on cognition and brain function. Together, the knowledge gleaned from these studies will inform not only a greater understanding of adverse effects of cannabinoids, but the potential for therapeutic applications of cannabinoids.128 A wealth of integrative data from multimodal neuroimaging studies of humans is expected to provide significant advances in this field in coming years.



The work toward this review was supported by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (459111, 514604 to Dr Solowij). The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.




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