Quitting cannabis use drastically improves memory and cognitive ability within a month of abstinence, says study

Researchers in Boston studied 88 men aged 16-25 who smoked marijuana at least once a week and compared their cognitive ability to those who quit for a month.


                            Quitting cannabis use drastically improves memory and cognitive ability within a month of abstinence, says study

Teenagers who stopped smoking marijuana regularly observed a marked improvement in their memories within a month of abstinence from the drug, according to a new study, 

The study observed the responses of 88 men and boys aged 16-25 who smoked marijuana at least once a week. They were asked to either cut down on their use or stop using altogether. Those who went cold turkey aced memory tests and improved further after a month as compared to when they were regularly smoking, Daily Mail reports.

It was ultimately concluded that the psychoactive chemicals present in the drug harmed the IQs of young people and proved to be detrimental to their brains.

However, it was also found that the effects could be reversed if they quit.

Dr. Randi Schuster, a clinical psychologist who is the lead author of the study, said: "The ability to learn or 'map down' new information, which is a critical facet of success in the classroom, improved with sustained non-use of cannabis. Young cannabis users who stop regular - weekly or more - use may be better equipped to learn efficiently and therefore better positioned for academic success. We can confidently say these findings strongly suggest abstaining from cannabis helps young people learn, while continuing cannabis use may interfere with the learning process."

A marijuana user blows smoke after taking a hit from a bong during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Getty)
A marijuana user blows smoke after taking a hit from a bong during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Getty)

The study found that vital memory functions among the participants improved significantly after the process, according to the analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. The study was the first of its kind in terms of tracking changes in cognition over time with different levels of cannabis usage.

Dr. Schuster, director of neuropsychology at the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said: "Our findings provide two pieces of convincing evidence. The first is adolescents learn better when they are not using cannabis. The second - which is the good news part of the story - is at least some of the deficits associated with cannabis use are not permanent and actually improve pretty quickly after cannabis use stops."

The sample space was divided into two groups, in order to compare the weekly cognitive performance of those who agreed to stop for 30 days as compared to those that continued smoking as usual. During the first week, Dr. Schuster found the ability to learn and recall new information improved only among those who stopped using cannabis.

A bowl of medicinal marijuana is displayed in a booth at The International Cannabis and Hemp Expo April 18, 2010, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California. (Getty)
A bowl of medicinal marijuana is displayed in a booth at The International Cannabis and Hemp Expo April 18, 2010, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California. (Getty)

More than one in seven 13- to 18-year-olds in the US take cannabis. In the UK, one in four has tried it at least once. Adolescents usually justify its usage by saying it is much safer as compared to alcohol. That said, this age is critical for brain maturation, with many regions being susceptible to the effects of the drug.

The procedure took into account pre-drug learning abilities, mood, cognition, motivation, and the frequency and intensity of cannabis use, with regular assessments of thought process and memory. Urine tests were regularly carried out to ensure the participants stuck to instructions. They also received incentives for adhering to the abstinence.

While improvements in attention were observed after just one month of abstinence, those who continued to use did not show any improvement in any aspect of cognitive functioning. Dr. Schuster added: "There are still a lot of open questions to be studied, including whether attention might improve and memory continues to improve with longer periods of cannabis abstinence."

A marijuana user attempts to light an oversized joint during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Getty)
A marijuana user attempts to light an oversized joint during a 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' in Golden Gate Park on April 20, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Getty)

Marijuana is obtained from the cannabis plant and contains over 400 different chemicals which have a range of effects on the user, both mentally and physically. Out of them, the psychoactive chemicals directly affect the brain, with the main element being tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is responsible for the "chilled out" sensation associated with smoking cannabis. However, the same chemical can cause memory impairment.

That said, some of these chemicals are already present in our brain, which has its own endocannabinoid system. It does not matter whether you smoke cannabis or not, they are present by default. While in terms of size, the brain grows to its maximum size by the age seven, the teenage brain changes on a dramatic scale when it comes to IQ, which isn't stable during those years. The brain brazenly prunes connections between brain cells, synapses, in the grey matter during adolescence. During this period, the teenage brain is more susceptible to cannabis than an adult brain, which is relatively fixed and fully evolved.