Weed May Actually Be Good for Your Memory

If someone told you that smoking weed was actually good for your memory, you might assume they were high. Like, really high. Yet, a new study suggests that a regular dose of THC -- the main active ingredient in marijuana -- may indeed improve the cognitive abilities of older people, specifically when it comes to learning and memory.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. (Sorry.)

The findings, which were published this week in Nature Medicine, come from research conducted by a team out of the University of Bonn in Germany, who ran a series of experiments on mice of varying ages to explore the effects of THC on their brains, comparing their abilities to do various tasks while "sober" and while slightly high. Specifically, they tasked them with finding their way to a safe platform in a water maze and recognizing a fellow mouse they had previously been exposed to. Incredibly, while the older mice performed much worse than the younger mice during their sober stints, they older mice's performance significantly improved after being dosed with THC. So much so that the old mice were nearly as good at the two tasks while stoned as the younger mice were while sober. 

Of course, this is by no means proof that getting high has the exact effect on humans but it's an encouraging bit of news for researchers who've previously speculated that THC and other compounds found in cannabis may help reverse certain effects of aging in the brain, like memory loss. It seems absolutely absurd that one might treat memory loss with weed, but it actually isn't. Not to get too deep into the science, but essentially our brains contain natural cannabinoids that activate certain receptors that control particular neural activity. However, they are known to deteriorate with age. Thus, the thinking behind this sort of research is that exposing the brain to "external" cannabinoids may actually mimic the effect of the naturally occurring ones, and in effect reverse this deterioration brought on by age.

When the researchers examined the brains of the elderly mice, they discovered that the ones who'd been regularly dosed with THC had sprouted neural connections in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory, among many other important cognitive functions. In fact, they actually began to resemble the brains of the young mice who never received any THC. 

Considering the dramatic shift in public perception of marijuana that's occurred over the last few years, this revelation may help it ditch the stigma even further. Obviously, there will need to be extensive testing done on humans to determine what sort of cognitive impact THC actually has on our brains (and what an appropriate dosage is), and whether it has any long-term negative consequences. The good news, though, is this latest batch of research has enabled the team to secure funding from the German government to begin testing on older adults soon. 

h/tScientific American

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. Follow him @jwmcgauley.