What are marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain?
Substantial evidence from animal research and a growing number of studies in humans indicate that marijuana exposure during development can cause long-term or possibly permanent adverse changes in the brain. Rats exposed to THC before birth, soon after birth, or during adolescence show notable problems with specific learning and memory tasks later in life.19–21 Cognitive impairments in adult rats exposed to THC during adolescence are associated with structural and functional changes in the hippocampus.22–24 Studies in rats also show that adolescent exposure to THC is associated with an altered reward system, increasing the likelihood that an animal will self-administer other drugs (e.g., heroin) when given an opportunity (see “Is marijuana a gateway drug?”). Imaging studies in human adolescents show that regular marijuana users display impaired neural connectivity in specific brain regions involved in a broad range of executive functions like memory, learning, and impulse control compared to non-users.25
The latter findings may help explain the results of a large longitudinal study conducted in New Zealand, which found that frequent and persistent marijuana use starting in adolescence was associated with a loss of an average of 8 IQ points measured in midadulthood.26 Significantly, in that study, those who used marijuana heavily as teenagers and quit using as adults did not recover the lost IQ points. Users who only began using marijuana heavily in adulthood did not lose IQ points. These results suggest that marijuana has its strongest long-term impact on young users whose brains are still busy building new connections and maturing in other ways. The endocannabinoid system is known to play an important role in the proper formation of synapses (the connections between neurons) during early brain development, and a similar role has been proposed for the refinement of neural connections during adolescence. If confirmed by future research, this may be one avenue by which marijuana use during adolescence produces its long-term effects.27
The ability to draw definitive conclusions about marijuana’s long-term impact on the human brain from past studies is often limited by the fact that study participants use multiple substances, and there is often limited data about the participants’ health or mental functioning prior to the study. Over the next decade, the National Institutes of Health is planning to fund a major longitudinal study that will track a large sample of young Americans from late childhood (before first use of drugs) to early adulthood. The study will use neuroimaging and other advanced tools to clarify precisely how and to what extent marijuana and other substances, alone and in combination, affect adolescent brain development.
Marijuana, Memory, and the Hippocampus
Distribution of cannabinoid receptors in the rat brain. Brain image reveals high levels (shown in orange and yellow) of cannabinoid receptors in many areas, including the cortex, hippocampus, cerebellum, and nucleus accumbens (ventral striatum).
Memory impairment from marijuana use occurs because THC alters how information is processed in the hippocampus, a brain area responsible for memory formation.
Most of the evidence supporting this assertion comes from animal studies. For example, rats exposed to THC in utero, soon after birth, or during adolescence, show notable problems with specific learning/memory tasks later in life. Moreover, cognitive impairment in adult rats is associated with structural and functional changes in the hippocampus from THC exposure during adolescence.
As people age, they lose neurons in the hippocampus, which decreases their ability to learn new information. Chronic THC exposure may hasten agerelated loss of hippocampal neurons. In one study, rats exposed to THC every day for 8 months (approximately 30 percent of their life-span) showed a level of nerve cell loss (at 11 to 12 months of age) that equaled that of unexposed animals twice their age.
This series of reports simplifies the science of research findings for the educated lay public, legislators, educational groups, and practitioners. The series reports on research findings of national interest.