The Impact of Cannabis Use on Working Memory

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Concerns about the effects that result from cannabis use continue to increase as the days elapse. Over 97.5 million citizens in America aged above 12 years have used illegal cannabis (Vo, Schacht, Mintzer, & Fishman, 2014). This statistic means that the impact that cannabis might have on the cognitive functions, including working memory, will affect a large population of people, hence the main reason as to why this study is important. Working memory refers to the short-term memory that human beings require for gaining knowledge about new things.      

The theory of context-dependent memory developed by McGeoch in 1942 stipulates that memory loss happens because of the change in the internal or external environment since learning. An individual who has taken cannabis alters their internal environment by interfering with the cognitive functions. For this reason, a person who uses marijuana might have a difficulty remembering the new knowledge they gained when they were high on the drug (Smith et al., 2013). It is important to understand how the use of cannabis might impair the working memory of an individual. By literature searches, the study will be able to identify if the use of marijuana has an adverse or a positive impact on the working memory.

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Empirical Review

The controversial aspect of the impact of cannabis on working memory has made different researchers investigate this area of study in an attempt to provide facts about this problem. The previous research done in this area shows that the primary reason behind the concerns of the impact of Cannabis or marijuana on working memory is that this drug is the most widely used globally given the statistics mentioned earlier. Most individuals who start using cannabis begin during their adolescent stage, a primary phase that psychosocial and neural development takes place making their working memory more vulnerable.

According to the studies conducted by Smith et al. (2013), consuming cannabis for medical reasons is legal when there is a prescription in 15 countries globally. On the other hand, many nations are in the process of making the use of the drug legal. However, evidence from the research carried out by different scholars shows that one in every ten users of cannabis becomes an addict and develops dependence on the drug (Vo et al., 2014). In the past four decades, researchers have proved that the use of marijuana impairs the working memory of individuals or their capability to grasp, manipulate, and remember information after a short delay. 

Different scientists affirm that working memory helps individuals to create connections between what they learn and apply those new things in their practical lives. For instance, in a classroom, if a student is trying to learn something new in a new subject, then they will use their working memory to keep track of the lessons and apply the new knowledge as the lesson goes on for a better understanding. In other words, the working memory helps an individual to grasp new aspects and process them.

Vo et al. (2014) state that when a person is high on marijuana, then their working memory will function differently and they might not be able to grasp things and process them as efficiently as they would when they were sober. For instance, a student who is sober during a lesson is more likely to be effective in class in comparison to a student who was not sober. However, the extent of impact created by cannabis in the working memory as a cognitive function depends on the quantity consumed, how recent the individual has taken the drug, and the duration that the person has been using it (Vo et al., 2014). 

The present studies show that chronic marijuana users have impairment of the working memory where such individuals receive a high dose of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the main constituent in cannabis that brings about a euphoric effect on the users consequently causing the impairment on the working memory (Bossong et al., 2012). These studies show that Cannabis and the working memory have a direct link in a variety of ways. Cannabis affects a person’s ability to create new memories when they are high. However, this effect is temporary, and the working memory of the individual goes back to normal after they become sober.

The consumption of the drug allows THC among other chemicals to enter the bloodstream of the individual and travel throughout the body to the brain. When high levels of THC approximately 3.9 percent enter the brain of the person, it alters the functioning of the working memory by activating the endocannabinoid system (Bossong et al., 2012). This system has an intricate connection to the parts of the brain linked with memory. For instance, the CB1 receptors exist in a structure of the brain known as the hippocampus, which serves the purpose of processing and storing memories. These receptors are responsible for responding to the THC, and when they do, they alter the functioning of the hippocampus consequently impairing the working memory.

The presence of the THC as mentioned earlier activates the endocannabinoid system. The primary function of this system is to help people to forget the negative and bad experiences that they do not wish to remember (Smith et al., 2013). The activation of this system is, therefore, the main reason as to why most individuals who use cannabis cannot remember the things that were told them, or what they grasped when they were high on the drug. It is crucial to understand that the users of the cannabis may not have any problem remembering the old memories. In other words, the use of cannabis cannot make an individual forget what they already know.

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The presence of the THC in the human brain might impair the working memory in two significant ways. The THC might make an individual have a hard time encoding memories when they are high (Bossong et al., 2012). The user might not have the capability to create a new memory when they are under the influence of the drug. In addition, the user may have temporary recall difficulties. In other words, they might not be able to remember different events when they are high and even a short period after the high wears off. 

Based on the proof given by the study, it is evident that the use of cannabis hinders the capability of people to learn new things and remember any new experience they had when they were high. However, studies show that people can acquire tolerance to these effects. In other words, people can be able to have less difficulty remembering things and grasping new things over time. Research shows that THC adversely affects the working memory two hours after consuming it, but the effect does not last beyond 48 hours meaning it is a temporary effect (Smith et al., 2013).

Different scientists have been studying the long-term impact of the use of cannabis in the working memory, and these studies contradict. Some studies show that the long run users of marijuana perform poorly on the tests of working memory even when they are sober (Vo et al., 2014). This information means that the frequent use of cannabis has a more intense adverse effect on the working memory. The primary query on this issue is whether the effect on the working memory of these long-term users is permanent or it will go back to normal over time.

A review paper done in the year 2008 concerning the impact of cannabis on working memory show that the adverse effect including the inability to learn new things could persist even after the user has abstained from the drug for an extended period. On the contrary, a study done in the previous year compared users who avoided the drug for three months with the long-term users who are still under the influence and concluded that the impairment of the working memory was only temporary. Those individuals who had stopped using Cannabis showed no sign of working memory impairment (Smith et al., 2013). The conflicting findings from different researchers show that some people quickly recover from the adverse effect of cannabis compared to others when the high wears off or when they abstain from it. 

Hypothetical Study and Rationale

Based on the information gained from this study, it is evident that cannabis has an adverse impact on the working memory of the users. THC, the primary substance in cannabis causes an activation of the endocannabinoid system in the brain, which is responsible for the memory loss of different events. The activation of this system hinders an individual from learning new aspects when they are high, and even if they do, they will not remember it when they become sober. 

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The effect of cannabis on the working memory of the users is only temporary, and the person returns to normal as soon as the high wears off. However, the impact that it has when the person is high makes the user have trouble in creating new memories and learning new aspects, which are not healthy. Although the use of cannabis only creates a temporary effect on the working memory of the user, the fact remains that the impact created in the working memory of people is negative.

Hypothesis

It is hypothesized that the use of cannabis will have a temporary negative impact on working memory.

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  1. Bossong, M. G., Jansma, J. M., van Hell, H. H., Jager, G., Oudman, E., Saliasi, E., … Ramsey, N. F. (2012). Effects of δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol on human working memory function. Biological Psychiatry71(8), 693-699.
  2. Smith, M. J., Cobia, D. J., Wang, L., Alpert, K. I., Cronenwett, W. J., Goldman, M. B., … Csernansky, J. G. (2013). Cannabis-related working memory deficits and associated subcortical morphological differences in healthy individuals and schizophrenia subjects. Schizophrenia Bulletin40(2), 287-299.
  3. Vo, H. T., Schacht, R., Mintzer, M., & Fishman, M. (2014). Working memory impairment in cannabis-and opioid-dependent adolescents. Substance Abuse35(4), 387-390.
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