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Teen Marijuana Use Linked to Memory Loss

 teenagers smoking marijuana jointA recent study published in the journal Hippocampus found that daily use of marijuana may contribute to memory problems among teens as well as brain structure abnormalities, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services – even if they ultimately cut back on their use or stop smoking marijuana entirely.

Despite these findings and a pile of anecdotal evidence that supports the notion that regular use of marijuana contributes to poor academic performance and increased risk of drug addiction problems throughout life, a recent poll conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 36 percent of American adults believe that medical marijuana should be allowed for children.

While the respondents to the Mott poll may or may not be aware of the effects of regular cannabis use on the developing brain, the hope is that those who create legislation – and vote one way or the other – will take the time to do their research before making it legal to prescribe to children a substance that has been shown to have a negative impact on cognitive function and their hope for the future.

Marijuana and the Brain

The human brain develops rapidly and significantly all the way up until the mid-20s, a fact which likely contributes to the extreme effects of smoking marijuana among teens as compared to adults – who may even smoke longer or in larger amounts comparatively.

One study found that teens who smoked marijuana regularly lost up to eight IQ points by early adulthood, and the recent Hippocampus study found that heavy marijuana use during the teen years also may be connected to poor performance on memory tests as adults, as compared to peers who never used marijuana on a regular basis. Additionally, according to brain scans, the shape of the hippocampus was different in the teens who used marijuana, an issue that can impact the ability to form and maintain long-term memories.

However, there is a question of which issue came first. The participants were assessed one time, which means it is unclear as to whether those who smoked marijuana regularly as teens may have been more likely to do so because they had a hippocampus that was differently structured or if the marijuana use contributed to that structural alteration.

Matthew Smith, lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said: “We can’t know that it’s causing the memory impairment.”

The study is still valuable, however, because it does demonstrate a correlation between the two issues that can be further explored. Additionally, because the participants were free of marijuana use for at least two years prior to undergoing brain scans, it further demonstrates that if marijuana is in fact causing the structural changes to the hippocampus and memory changes, these are not effects that go away even after long-term abstinence.

Teen Marijuana Use and Legalization

Though most people seem to agree that recreational marijuana use and teens do not mix, there seems to be a more mixed view when it comes to medicinal use of the drug among young people. While 63 percent of the people polled agreed with medical marijuana legalization in general, 36 percent said it was also okay for children to use the drug to treat medical ailments.

However, about 80 percent of polltakers said that those who use medical marijuana should not be allowed to do so in front of children – a view that was most heavily held by parents of kids under the age of 18, according to HealthDay.

Dr. Matthew Davis was Poll Director for Mott Children’s Hospital. In a university news release, he said: “We found that while most people support state laws that permit medical marijuana use among adults, the story is dramatically different for children. Medical marijuana is a controversial subject when we’re talking about kids.

“Our findings suggest that not only is the public concerned about the use of medical marijuana among children, but that the majority of Americans worry that even exposure to it may be harmful to kids’ health. As is typical with anything involving health, the public’s standards are much higher when it comes to protecting children’s health.”

While there is some evidence to suggest that medical marijuana may be helpful in treating the symptoms of specific medical disorders like epilepsy, cancer, and HIV/AIDS, there is little to no research on the efficacy or effects of the drug on children when used for medical treatment. Given the lack of dosage guidelines for anyone taking marijuana medicinally as well as the growing amount of information that demonstrates harm done to the developing brain by regular or heavy marijuana use among teens, it seems safest to simply table this idea until there is a more regulated version of marijuana available for prescription (e.g., THC capsules) and more research into the long-term effects of the drug on kids and adults alike.

Protecting Your Children

No matter what your opinion on medical marijuana legalization or the legalization of marijuana for recreational use among adults, parents are encouraged to take a zero-tolerance approach to any use of the drug by their children. The risks of damage to cognitive development and functioning, harm to emotional health and interpersonal relationships, as well as potential accidents under the influence and related chronic or acute illness are far too great to justify any use of marijuana among teens.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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