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cognition

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director July 11, 2017

    marijuana_seedlingAlcohol consumption is associated with negative changes in gray matter volume and in white matter integrity, while cannabis use is not, according to data published online ahead of print in the journal Addiction.

    Investigators from the University of Colorado, Boulder and the Oregon Health & Science University evaluated neuroimaging data among adults (ages 18 to 55) and adolescents (ages 14 to 18). Authors identified an association between alcohol use and negative changes in brain structure, but identified no such association with cannabis.

    “Alcohol use severity is associated with widespread lower gray matter volume and white matter integrity in adults, and with lower gray matter volume in adolescents,” they concluded. By contrast, “No associations were observed between structural measures and past 30-day cannabis use in adults or adolescents.”

    Researchers acknowledged that their findings were similar to those of prior studies “suggesting that regionally specific differences between cannabis users and non-users are often inconsistent across studies and that some of the observed associations may actually be related to comorbid alcohol use.”

    A 2015 brain imaging study published in The Journal of Neuroscience similarly reported that cannabis use was not positively associated with adverse changes in the brain, but that alcohol “has been unequivocally associated with deleterious effects on brain morphology and cognition in both adults and adolescents.”

    Longitudinal data published in June in the British Medical Journal reported, “Alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with adverse brain outcomes including hippocampal atrophy.”

    An abstract of the study, “Structural Neuroimaging Correlates of Alcohol and Cannabis Use in Adolescents and Adults,” appears online here.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director November 14, 2016

    Marijuana researchMedical cannabis administration is associated with improved cognitive performance and lower levels of prescription drug use, according to longitudinal data published online in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology.

    Investigators from Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and McLean Hospital evaluated the use of medicinal cannabis on patients’ cognitive performance over a three-month period. Participants in the study were either naïve to cannabis or had abstained from the substance over the previous decade. Baseline evaluations of patients’ cognitive performance were taken prior to their cannabis use and then again following treatment.

    Researchers reported “no significant decrements in performance” following medical marijuana use. Rather, they determined, “[P]atients experienced some improvement on measures of executive functioning, including the Stroop Color Word Test and Trail Making Test, mostly reflected as increased speed in completing tasks without a loss of accuracy.”

    Participants in the study were less likely to experience feelings of depression during treatment, and many significantly reduced their use of prescription drugs. “[D]ata revealed a notable decrease in weekly use across all medication classes, including reductions in use of opiates (-42.88 percent), antidepressants (-17.64 percent), mood stabilizers (-33.33 percent), and benzodiazepines (-38.89 percent),” authors reported – a finding that is consistent with prior studies.

    Patients in the study will continue to be assessed over the course of one-year of treatment to assess whether these preliminary trends persist long-term.

    Full text of the study, “Splendor in the grass? A pilot study assessing the impact of marijuana on executive function,” appears online here.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director February 10, 2015

    Study: Marijuana Use Not Associated With Previously Reported Changes In Brain MorphologyIt was less than a year ago when the mainstream media was chock-full of headlines like this one: ‘Brain changes associated with casual marijuana use in young adults, study finds.’ The alarmist headlines were in response to a controversial paper published by researchers at Harvard University in Boston and Northwestern University in Chicago which alleged to have found differences in brain morphology in a cohort of 20 college-age marijuana users as compared to 20 non-users. The study’s investigators attributed the differences to subjects’ cannabis use.

    But a funny thing happened when a team of scientists from the University of Colorado and the University of Kentucky tried to replicate these results in a separate, larger sample (158 participants) of subjects after rigorously controlling for both groups’ use of alcohol.

    They couldn’t.

    Writing in the January 28 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, authors summarized:

    “[T]his retrospective study examined brain morphology in a sample of adult daily marijuana users (n = 29) versus nonusers (n = 29) and a sample of adolescent daily users (n = 50) versus nonusers (n = 50). Groups were matched on a critical confounding variable, alcohol use, to a far greater degree than in previously published studies.

    We acquired high-resolution MRI scans, and investigated group differences in gray matter using voxel-based morphometry, surface-based morphometry, and shape analysis in structures suggested to be associated with marijuana use, as follows: the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum.

    No statistically significant differences were found between daily users and nonusers on volume or shape in the regions of interest. Effect sizes suggest that the failure to find differences was not due to a lack of statistical power, but rather was due to the lack of even a modest effect.”

    Why the contradictory results? Investigators speculated that previously reported imaging studies failed to adequately control for the impact of alcohol, a substance that “unlike marijuana, … has been unequivocally associated with deleterious effects on brain morphology and cognition in both adults and adolescents.” In other words, researchers theorized that previously reported differences in the brain images of marijuana consumers as compared to non-users were likely because of subjects consumption of booze, not cannabis.

    They concluded, “In sum, the results indicate that, when carefully controlling for alcohol use, gender, age, and other variables, there is no association between marijuana use and standard volumetric or shape measurements of subcortical structures. … [I]t seems unlikely that marijuana use has the same level of long-term deleterious effects on brain morphology as other drugs like alcohol. The press may not cite studies that do not find sensational effects, but these studies are still extremely important.”

    An abstract of the study, “Daily Marijuana Use Is Not Associated with Brain Morphometric Measures in Adolescents or Adults,” is online here.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director November 12, 2014

    NORML’s Deputy Director today on Alternet.org addressed new media claims that cannabis use can potentially shrink the brain:

    [excerpt] A new study identifying minor differences in the brain imaging of habitual marijuana consumers compared to non-users may be ideal for stimulating sensational headlines (e.g., “Regular pot smokers have shrunken brains, study says,” Los Angeles Times, November 10), but tells us little in regard to whether pot poses actual health risks.

    Specifically, an MRI scan revealed less gray matter in the orbital frontal cortex of pot-smoking subjects compared to those who had never used the drug. Researchers also identified increased connectivity between certain regions of the brain in regular marijuana users compared with non-users.

    So precisely what do these findings tell us in regard to pot use and health? Not much. Since the study design is not longitudinal, investigators cannot determine whether these differences are caused by subject’s cannabis use, whether these differences existed prior to subjects’ ever trying cannabis, or whether these differences persist when users’ cannabis consumption ceases.

    Most importantly, investigators in this study failed to determine whether any of these differences are positively associated with any measurable adverse performance outcomes, such as cognitive performance or quality of life. It may be that these cannabis users are functioning in their daily lives in a manner that is indistinguishable from controls, in which case the imaging differences may hold little if any real-world significance. (In fact, one of the paper’s authors acknowledged, “[C]hronic users appear to be doing fine.”)

    Full text of NORML’s response, “Media Leaping to Extremely Faulty Conclusions from Study on the Effects of Marijuana on the Brain,” appears online here.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director October 22, 2014

    Moderate cannabis consumption by young people is not positively associated with changes in intelligence quotient (IQ), according to data presented this week at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual congress in Berlin, Germany.

    Investigators at the University College of London analyzed data from 2,612 subjects who had their IQ tested at the age of eight and again at age 15. They reported no relationship between cannabis use and lower IQ at age 15 when confounding factors such as subjects’ history of alcohol use and cigarette use were taken into account.

    “In particular alcohol use was found to be strongly associated with IQ decline,” the authors wrote in a press release cited by The Washington Post. “No other factors were found to be predictive of IQ change.”

    Quoted in the Independent Business Times, the study’s lead author said: “Our findings suggest cannabis may not have a detrimental effect on cognition, once we account for other related factors particularly cigarette and alcohol use. This may suggest that previous research findings showing poorer cognitive performance in cannabis users may have resulted from the lifestyle, behavior and personal history typically associated with cannabis use, rather than cannabis use itself.”

    The investigators acknowledged that more chronic marijuana use, defined in the study as a subject’s admission of having consumed cannabis 50 times or more by age 15, was correlated with slightly poorer exam results at the age of 16 — even after controlling for other variables. However, investigators admitted: “It’s hard to know what causes what. Do kids do badly at school because they are smoking weed, or do they smoke weed because they’re doing badly?”

    Commenting on the newly presented data, the meeting’s Chair, Guy Goodwin, from the University of Oxford, told BBC News: “This is a potentially important study because it suggests that the current focus on the alleged harms of cannabis may be obscuring the fact that its use is often correlated with that of other even more freely available drugs and possibly lifestyle factors.”

    In a recent review published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the NIDA Director Nora Volkow alleged that cannabis use, particularly by adolescents, is associated with brain alterations and lower IQ. However, the IQ study cited by Ms. Volkow as the basis of her claim was later questioned in a separate analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That paper suggested that socioeconomics, not subjects’ cannabis use, was responsible for differences in IQ and that the plant’s “true effect [on intelligence quotient] could be zero.”

    A previous assessment of cannabis use and its potential impact on intelligence quotient in a cohort of young people tracked since birth reported, “[M]arijuana does not have a long-term negative impact on global intelligence.”

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