Marijuana smokers have long been associated with short-term memory loss. I’m sure most of us can think of at least one stoner who seems to have the memory of a goldfish, and that distant, thousand-yard stare. Because cannabis kills brain cells, right? Well, think again. Although it seems counterintuitive to imply that cannabis might actually protect the brain and enhance memory, there is a small but growing amount of evidence that suggests that CBD, the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, may be able to do just that.
“Cognitive decline,” the scientific term for memory loss, is one of the greatest fears for people over the age of 50. Most people have experienced walking into a room and not remembering why, forgetting their name, or losing their keys at least once in their lifetime. But, can you imagine this happening more frequently, combined with severe behavior and thought changes?
The fear of developing a debilitating form of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, is real for many people. This same fear is the reason why learning more about CBD, including its effects on memory, is so intriguing. Whether it’s Alzheimer’s or general memory loss, there is scientific research that is pointing towards the potential of CBD to help brain functioning and improve memory.
So instead of damaging memory, it seems that marijuana could do quite the opposite and may even protect the brain against age-related memory loss. Let’s take a look at what the science is saying.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, is a non-psychoactive and all-natural cannabinoid found in cannabis. Marijuana plants are chemical powerhouses that produce over 400 different compounds. But not all of these compounds are unique to cannabis, of course, and are also found in many other species of plants, which is why cannabis can taste like fresh lemons or smell like pine trees.
Of the 400 compounds, more than 60 are completely specific to the cannabis plant. One of the most well-known and fascinating is CBD. The more we learn about CBD, the more it becomes deemed to revolutionize the medical world as we know it. CBD holds the key to a wide range of medicinal and therapeutic effects that cannabis has to offer.
Perhaps one of the most vitally important qualities of CBD is that it’s non-psychoactive, meaning it won’t get the user “high.” Unlike THC, which is the compound with the legendary power of producing a euphoric high, CBD is inert in terms of mind-altering effects. This means that when it’s taken on its own, the user doesn’t experience any of the sensations of being stoned.
Research states CBD could enhance memory
While many people believe that marijuana is to blame for memory loss, this isn’t entirely true. It depends on the cannabinoids that are consumed. The most common impairment for those that consume cannabis is short-term memory loss, but studies believe that this is due to THC, the primary psychoactive component of cannabis.
Other research has been done that shows you may be able to combat memory loss with the use of cannabidiol (CBD), since it affects cannabinoid receptors in a different way to THC.
In fact, CBD has already been proven to help people who suffer from degenerative memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have even suggested that CBD may be able to improve overall cognition.
According to one study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, for example, researchers Tim Karl and Carl Group found that CBD promotes neurogenesis (the growth and development of neurons), which essentially reduces the deterioration of cognitive functions. In one preclinical animal study conducted over a period of three weeks, mice were injected with an induced-Alzheimer’s disease and then received daily CBD treatments. The CBD was found to be effective in reversing the cognitive deficits of the mice.
Another study found that eight months of CBD treatment helped to prevent the development of social recognition memory deficits. Researchers investigating the role that CBD plays in protecting the brain have also discovered that it can reduce brain damage caused by various traumas.
In one particular study that involved animal models of brain injury, researchers found that CBD increased the number of viable brain cells and decreased the number of injured brain cells by more than 50%. The neuroprotective effects of CBD are believed to be due to its action on the CB2 receptor. CBD acts on the CB2 receptor to produce anti-inflammatory responses in the immune cells of the brain, therefore minimizing the extent of damage caused by inflammation. Oxidation also causes damage to the brain, and is partly responsible for the brain damage found in conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Moreover, studies have shown that CBD acts on the CB2 receptor to reduce oxidative damage.
Another study done by a team of Australian researchers found that CBD may improve working memory and recognition in people who suffer from schizophrenia. During the study, rats were induced to have a rodent model of schizophrenia, and then were treated with CBD. As you may have guessed by now, the CBD showed to “significantly improve” both working memory and recognition in the affected rats.
Furthermore, an extensive review done by Katrina Green from the University of Wollongong, Australia, took a look at existing literature on how CBD impacts cognitive functioning across a range of illnesses.
They looked carefully at 27 existing research articles in peer-reviewed journals which had reported an effect of CBD on cognition, including studies on meningitis, sepsis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and even deficits that were caused by the use of recreational marijuana. The evidence showed that CBD consistently improved cognition, and the interesting part is that – irrespective of the reason behind the cognitive deficit – it was determined that CBD would only work in a disease state, meaning that it had no apparent effect on the healthy brain.
This essentially means that CBD can help to improve memory, if your brain has been affected by one of the above conditions – it isn’t thought to enhance the memory in a perfectly healthy brain.
Research that says otherwise
Just like almost all scientific research, there are two sides to the coin. While some studies state that CBD can enhance memory, others are not so sure. One particular study has found the brighter side by claiming CBD can aid in addiction recovery due to its effects on the memory.
The research was conducted by Brazilian scientists from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, and was published on Project CBD. It explains in greater detail just how the effects of CBD can help people to fight drug addiction.
There are many terms used to describe addiction – dependence, misuse, abuse, and use disorders, to name a few. But regardless of the exact definition or the patterns one associates with smoking cigarettes, for example, any recovery from a physiological addiction is difficult.
When a user is exposed to a drug-related cue, the experience of that drug is re-lived to an extent and then reconsolidated so that it can be called upon later. In other words, the user associates the drug use with a specific experience. That experience is then stored in the memory, and when the user finds themselves in the same situation or setting, they associate it with the drug use, leading them to use the substance.
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Addiction Biology, CBD may interfere with the reconsolidation process by reducing future cravings.
The study was done on mice, which were conditioned to associate one room with a rewarding drug, such as morphine, and another with no drug. Their inclination for the morphine-associated room was measured in the absence of the drug. It’s a simple model and is associated with certain outcomes in humans, like a relapse. In cases where moderate doses of CBD were given immediately after cue exposure, the reconsolidation of the cue was disrupted. This would ideally translate in humans to a disrupted reconsolidation of drug cravings.
For two weeks, the CBD-treated mice preferred the morphine-associated room far less than untreated animals. Also, this one treatment of CBD retained the protective effect, even in cases where morphine was re-administered later (modeling a relapse).
This research suggests that the effects of CBD on the memory may help in unlearning the habits from addiction, which lead to cravings and relapse, long after withdrawal has subsided. In other words, it’s thought that CBD interferes with the memory and therefore aids addicts by assisting them in disassociating experiences with their drug habits.
Final thoughts on CBD enhancing memory
Currently, there is nowhere near enough evidence to suggest that CBD enhances the memory conclusively. Many studies done have proven that CBD promotes neurogenesis, which reduces the deterioration of cognitive functions resulting from various health conditions such as Alzheimer’s. However, there is very little, if any, evidence suggesting that CBD would enhance the memory in a perfectly healthy brain.
What we can say is that cannabis should not be viewed as the memory-impairing drug that it is so often described as. The fact is that marijuana is made up of hundreds of different cannabinoids, and while some of these compounds may have certain effects – such as memory loss – others could have the complete opposite effect.