Cannabis Study: How THC Affects Learning and Memory at Different Ages

Article by Nick Jikomes, Leafly

Cannabis Study: How THC Affects Learning and Memory at Different Ages

“All diseases run into one, old age.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

A recent study in mice sparked eye-catching headlines like, “Memory Loss From Old Age Could Be Reversed By Smoking Marijuana.” The idea is alluring, especially given the toll cognitive decline takes as we age: instead of leaving you dazed and confused, THC might actually help restore cognitive function in older individuals.

While the study made interesting observations about how THC affects learning and memory in young vs. older mice, it didn’t involve smoking or cannabis consumption. What did the study find, how did it work, and what are the implications for future human research?

Cannabinoids and Aging: What Did We Already Know?

We knew three basic things going into this recent study. First, young mice have stronger learning and memory abilities than older mice—no surprise there. Second, giving young mice THC generally makes them perform worse on learning and memory tests. Third, the endocannabinoid system influences the progression of aging in the brain, and endocannabinoid levels in the brain decline with age.

Dr. Andras Bilkei-Gorzo, lead author of the recent study, explained the rationale for their experiments. “We had learned from previous work that decreased cannabinoid signaling accelerates brain aging. We asked whether enhancing cannabinoid system activity might slow down—or even reverse—normal cognitive decline that comes with aging.”

The idea was relatively straightforward. If age-related cognitive deficits are due, at least in part, to deficits in the endocannabinoid system, then perhaps exposure to a plant cannabinoid like THC might compensate for this. So, how did their experiments work?

THC, Memory, and Aging Study: Basic Findings and Summary

The study looked at behavioral measures of learning and memory in young vs. old mice. In each age group, some mice received a constant, daily dose of THC for 28 days, while others served as controls (they didn’t receive THC). After their 28-day treatment, their learning and memory abilities were assessed. There was no THC in their system during assessment. The question was how learning and memory were affected after chronic THC exposure.

It turned out that old mice responded differently to chronic THC compared to young mice. Old mice did better on learning and memory tests if they had a 28-day THC treatment beforehand. The behavior of old mice that had a chronic THC treatment looked like the behavior of young mice without a THC treatment.

There were also molecular changes in a brain area called the hippocampus that paralleled these behavioral changes. Basically, the brains of older mice that had received THC looked more like the brains of young mice without THC; there were more connections between neurons in the hippocampus. There were also some interesting genomic changes. In the THC-treated old mice, genes associated with plasticity and extended lifespan were turned up, while genes associated with age-related cognitive impairment were turned down.

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