Does Cannabis Make You Lose Your Memory?
We all know how important memory is, so it’s vital that we ask ourselves: does smoking weed have an effect on memory recall? The answer unfortunately is yes. However, by using cannabis in a certain way, we can lessen the blow of these negative effects. Continue reading to learn more about both the short- and long-term consequences of marijuana use on our memories.
When you smoke weed, your short-term memory immediately becomes impaired. However, what exactly is happening when this occurs? Will cannabis permanently ruin your memory? Those who want to use cannabis positively and effectively need to understand its adverse effects so they can learn how to avoid them.
This article discusses both the positive and negative effects of cannabis on memory, so that readers can make an informed decision about its use.
How Memory Works
In other words, cognition can be divided into two parts: process one and process two.
- System 1 is the part of the brain where unconscious, automatic decisions are made. These decisions are usually simple and happen quickly.
- On the other hand, System 2 is where consciousness lies–the system in which you’re probably thinking about this very moment. System 2 handles complex decisions that need careful thought. It’s slower than 1, but more dependable.
Our ability to remember is based on two systems, but it could be said that memories “reside” in system 2. We create memories most effectively through intentional interactions with the world (attention), which then impacts our short-term memory.
Usually, if we don’t consciously and repeatedly go over our short-term memories, they’ll be lost forever. This rehearsal can happen either in our minds or out loud. If we rehearse enough, the memory will eventually become a long-term one that stays with us indefinitely and can be accessed at any time.
The Link Between Cognitive Function and Cannabis
There are several cannabinoids in cannabis, making it complicated to understand the plant’s effects on cognitive function. Out of all the cannabinoids, we only know THC and CBD well. Furthermore, concentrations of these chemicals within different strains can differ substantially—so it’s impossible to make claims about how cannabis affects memory retention that would apply to all instances..
Although most cannabis strains contain THC, we can make suggestions about how this particular cannabinoid will affect an individual. Furthermore, as breeding has become more common, we are starting to learn about CBD’s purpose as well.
All cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) to some degree. This network of receptors and channels is naturally triggered by the body’s own endocannabinoids—such as anandamide.
The cannabinoids in cannabis interact with the ECS, which influences most of the body’s involuntary processes–such as dopamine release, reward neurotransmission, and memory recall.
The Short-Term Effects of Cannabis on Memory
If you use cannabis regularly, then you know that it affects your short-term memory. For example, forgetting what you just said, forgetting what others have told you, or getting through half a paragraph and not remembering how it started are all easy to experience.
But why does this happen? In order to explore that, we will use a 2021 study by Kroon, Kuhns, and Cousijn as our primary source while referencing other studies where it is necessary.
Intoxication from cannabis appears to reduce a person’s ability to halt an ongoing motor task, as tested with a stop-signal task. In this type of test, participants had to begin a motor action on one signal and then stop it on another signal. The time difference between the two signals is then measured and used to quantify motor memory.
In those under cannabis intoxication, this time was significantly longer than in those who were not. In contrast to this, inhibition before a response is initiated may not be impaired.
These findings are statistically significant, but the researchers admit they require further scrutiny. Nevertheless, it looks as though cannabis may have a detrimental effect on at least some forms of motor memory.
Learning and Memory
When it comes to the adverse effects of cannabis on learning and memory, the findings seem to indicate a clear correlation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, results were dose dependent, with more cannabis equalling poorer recall.
Although research suggests that consuming cannabis does lead to negative effects on short-term memory, it’s still not clear if this is also true for long-term users. It could be that both first-time and habitual users are impacted in the same way when it comes to short-term memory loss. However, we can’t say for certain at this time.
A study working with adolescents discovered that immediate recall is inhibited by cannabis consumption, but delayed recall is not. In opposition to the above study, this one found that continued use does in fact correlate with worsening immediate recall. Now, what’s worth noting here is that this study focused on adolescents, who are more adversely affected by cannabis than adults.
This is also related to short-term memory. It means, literally, the ability to process information in real time. It is used when you are learning something, and it helps you build connections. It’s your ability to hold a train of thought and further process it.
Findings are inconsistent regarding cannabis’ effects on working memory, especially regarding long-term use. However, it does seem likely that cannabis intoxication does have an adverse effect on working memory.
One study found that in participants who were cannabis users, only those with THC detectable in urine samples saw a significant decline in working memory ability. THC is only present in urine for a relatively short time after smoking, implying that its impact on working memory is linked to immediate effects, rather than long-term.
Both verbal and non-verbal memory are negatively impacted by cannabis consumption. In practice, this is one of the most observable effects of people who have recently smoked weed. It’s not uncommon to find yourself or someone struggling to keep track of a conversation. These types of memory are inextricably linked with immediate recall.
That said, one study that followed 3,300 individuals for 25 years found this: users lost about one word for every five years of marijuana they had smoked. Nevertheless, these findings should not be conflated with short-term memory effects, even though they relate to verbal memory.
The short-term effects of cannabis consumption on emotional processing appear to be minimal but present. It has been found that, on the whole, emotional processing is unimpeded by cannabis intoxication, except in regard to recognising and remembering negative emotional cues. A person’s ability to recognise negative emotions seems to be hampered by cannabis consumption (though not dramatically).
Interestingly, a further study discovered significant sex differences in emotional processing, thought to be impacted by the residual effects of cannabis. This highlights the need for further, more rigorous studies into cannabis and its effects not just in general, but in more specific demographics.
Spatial memory is the ability to remember details in the immediate environment. In other words, it’s what allows one to easily recall the last location of their keys, or find one’s way out of a maze. This kind of memory is also affected by cannabis.
A 2014 study found that THC can drastically and negatively affect spatial memory. In the 1990s, this was also tested in mice. Those who had recently ingested THC had a harder time finding their way out of mazes.
Attention in itself is not a form of memory, but memory is entirely reliant on attention. Understanding the negative effects of weed on short-term memory may not be possible without first understanding its effects on attention.
Attentional control has been found to be inhibited by both immediate cannabis use—with inhibition increasing in a dose-dependent manner—and long-term use. It is possible that this goes a long way to explain why short-term memory is negatively impacted by cannabis consumption. If you can’t pay attention to something, you’re probably not going to remember it.
The Long-Term Effects of Cannabis on Memory
Much as the effects of long-term cannabis use on memory are poorly understood, so are the effects of cannabis on long-term memory. However, it seems long-term memory is much more robust in the face of cannabis consumption compared to short-term. Once a memory has become embedded, retrieval appears to be fairly secure.
However, if you’re consistently impacting your short-term memory, you won’t have many new memories entering your long-term memory anyway, so there won’t be much to retrieve.
That said, the effects of long-term cannabis use are far harder to pin down. Controlling for other factors becomes much harder over decades, as does assessing what “cannabis use” actually means. Two people may have been smoking for 20 years, but how much do they smoke a day, and what cannabis have they been smoking?
What is apparent, though, is that if cannabis affects short-term memory, this could have long-term effects. If you smoke everyday for 20 years, you are likely to negatively affect your short-term memory during this time, and there will therefore be indirect long-term effects.
However, some good news. Abstinence from cannabis appears to allow your brain to repair itself. It’s not entirely clear whether this recovery is partial or total, nor how long it takes. But if you feel you’ve done some damage, things can get better.
The Long-Term Effects of Adolescent Cannabis Use on Memory
The negative effects of cannabis on memory appear to be more profound in the case of early onset use. It is well-known that using cannabis while the brain is developing can have extraordinarily negative effects, and ones that may be much harder to reverse.
And as they happen while the brain is developing, they can become cemented in a way that may not happen in an adult brain. Therefore, if you’re young, stay away.
What About CBD and Memory?
Can constituents like CBD improve memory function? Or does CBD cause memory loss?
The ability of CBD to activate some eCBome] sites raises the question of whether the cannabinoid could help to quell inflammatory cascades and reduce memory impairment in these circumstances.
Like THC and other cannabinoids, CBD (or cannabidiol) exists in raw cannabis as a cannabinoid acid (CBDA) following the enzymatic transformation of its precursor CBGA. As a meroterpene (part phenol, part terpene) CBDA plays a protective role in plant physiology. When exposed to high temperatures, decarboxylation transforms CBDA into the better-known molecule CBD. This non-psychotropic molecule has a scattershot mechanism of action in the body. Far from honing in on one molecular target, CBD interfaces with a range of receptors, including:
- CB1 (inverse agonist, antagonist, negative allosteric modulator)
- CB2 (inverse agonist, antagonist, negative allosteric modulator)
- GPR55 (antagonist)
- TPPA1 (agonist)
- TRPV1 (agonist)
- 5HT1A serotonin receptor (indirect agonist)
- PPARy (agonist)
CBD also influences many other receptors that make up the eCBome. As you can imagine, this widespread mechanism of action makes cannabidiol a good research candidate for a host of clinical applications. Let’s find out how, through interacting with some of these receptors, CBD may impact elements of memory.
Does CBD cause memory loss? Or can it help to reduce it? When it comes to using cannabis, taking CBD alongside THC might help to mitigate the effects of THC on short-term memory. Researchers are exploring if blends of both molecules may result in reductions in memory impairment compared to THC alone.
Ongoing studies are also assessing the impact of CBD on overall human brain function. Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands performed a systematic review to analyse the acute effects of CBD on emotional processing, verbal memory, and auditory and visual processing. Studies included in the review involved both healthy participants and subjects with psychiatric disorders.
Adding to the amassing research in this area, a paper published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research documents a study that looked at the effect of CBD on verbal episodic memory in healthy young participants.
As well as improving memory, researchers are keen to find out if CBD can block distressing memories, such as those that characterise PTSD. Whereas the process of reconsolidation helps to strengthen memory, reconsolidation blockers help to impair this process and weaken memory traces. Research published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology looked at the ability of CBD to disrupt both 1 and 7-day-old memories when administered to rats.
Several neurodegenerative diseases result in memory loss, including dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Neuroinflammation presents as a common feature in dementia. Ongoing studies are currently testing CBD for anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties. Researchers are also assessing CBD for memory-rescuing effects in animal models of cognitive impairment caused by neurodegenerative diseases. Scientists in Australia have also tested the long-term administration of CBD against the development of social recognition memory deficits] in an animal model of Alzheimer’s disease.
THC vs CBD for Memory
THC and CBD have different mechanisms of action in the body. Both target a wealth of eCBome receptors, however, one of the key differences lies in how they interact with CB1. While CBD has a low affinity for the site, THC acts as a parietal agonist, meaning it raises the level of activation above baseline. In doing so, the molecule causes an acute surge in dopamine and the subsequent sensations of the cannabis high.
But which cannabinoid should you pick before, say, sitting through an exam or soldering through an important textbook? Well, THC alone might provide adequate motivation and insight, but it produces a well-recognised inhibition of short-term memory. In contrast, ongoing studies are looking to see if CBD enhances memory and helps to curb the detrimental effects of THC.
Is Cannabis a Help or a Hindrance to Memory?
While we have a long way to go in understanding the relationship between cannabis and memory, it seems that if the former has any effect at all on the latter, it’s likely to be negative or negligible. We especially need more information regarding long-term use.
As things stand, we know that cannabis intoxication does seem to cause short-term memory impairment. However, this in isolation need be no bad thing. In recognising how cannabis affects memory, we have a greater ability to make informed choices about when to take it, and when to abstain.
Furthermore, as evidence suggests the negative effects of “cannabis memory loss” are mostly reversible with abstinence, we have the ability to undo any harm we feel we may have done.