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Cannabis Improves Cognitive Function, New Study Suggests

The preliminary results of a new study have found that medical marijuana treatments improve cognitive function.

Findings in a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology indicate that medical marijuana may improve executive functioning in adults. While there have been studies that suggest marijuana used recreationally could adversely affect brain function, preliminary evidence from this new study led by McLean Hospital’s Staci Gruber, PhD showed that medical marijuana treatments caused an improvement in cognitive performance.

The longitudinal study will examine 24 patients that are certified for medical marijuana use, testing their neurocognitive outcomes before treatment, and following 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months of treatment. The study is currently still in process, with 11 of the 24 patients having returned for their 3-month evaluation.

“After three months of medical marijuana treatment, patients actually performed better, in terms of their ability to perform certain cognitive tasks, specifically those mediated by the frontal cortex,” explained Gruber.

Following 3 months of medical marijuana treatments, participants were able to complete an array of cognitive tests faster and with better accuracy compared to when performing their baseline tests.

Gruber suggests that the differences in chemical composition in recreational and medical marijuana are what may be responsible for the varying effects on cognitive function. Recreational marijuana products are typically higher in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Medical marijuana products, however, have a tendency to be lower in THC and higher in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid shown to be therapeutically beneficial. Gruber has said she hopes to examine how the varying chemical makeup of cannabis products impacts the differing effects on brain function.

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Gruber and her team are also using self-report questionnaires to examine how medical marijuana affects patients’ sleep quality, depression levels, overall health and use of conventional medications like opiates.

So far, after 3 months of medical marijuana treatments, participants have reported decreases in sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression, and positive changes in some aspects of quality of life like greater energy and fewer limitations due to physical health. The participants have also reported a reduction in the use of other prescription medications, with opiate use specifically down by 42.88 percent.

“We saw a 42 percent reduction in opioid use,” reported Gruber. “This is significant, particularly for those of us in Massachusetts and other areas of the country where the opioid epidemic is ravaging so many. This preliminary finding certainly warrants deeper and broader investigation.”

Opioid medications are prescribed commonly for the treatment of acute and chronic pain. While opioids are effective for managing pain, though a recent study suggests that they could actually make chronic pain worse, the drug carries an extremely high risk of addiction, abuse and overdose. Researchers have encouraged doctors to recommend cannabis to patients rather than opioids for pain treatment, as recent studies have shown that access to medical marijuana reduces opioid use.

Gruber and her team also found that antidepressant and mood stabilizer medication use was down after 3 months of medical marijuana treatments by 17.64 percent and 33.33 percent, respectively.

“As a clinical researcher, I’m not interested in exploring only the good or the bad, I’m only interested in the truth,” said Gruber. “That’s what our patients and our recreational users have a right to know and a right to expect from us. People are going to use it. It’s up to us to figure out the very best and safest ways in which they can do that.”

You can read Gruber’s full preliminary report, “Splendor in the Grass? A Pilot Study Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana on Executive Function,” here, or learn more about the already-conducted medical research on cannabis and its therapeutic effects by visiting our education page.

Post by Eve Ripley

Eve is a writer specializing in cannabis education and editorials related to cannabis industry news.

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