Cannabis Affects Memory….At Least When It’s Synthetic

If a world of information at our fingertips has taught us anything, it’s that you have to be careful about what you read on the Internet (not on this website though, we’re solid!). Misinformation, conflicting information, and opinion passed off as fact run rabid, leaving the reader not sure what to believe. Cannabis, of course, is not immune to this. In fact, because it’s illegal to conduct studies on cannabis, even more misinformation exists. Controversy is the breeding ground for propaganda, allowing those against pot to promote negative stories at will. One recent such story discusses cannabis’s negative impact on memory. This story cites research from Lancaster University, research that begins by saying that more and more people are using cannabis heavily because of the recent legislation.

For this research, scientists studied the cannabinoid drug WIN 55, 212-2 in mice and found, “Long-term exposure impairs learning and memory in the animals. Brain imaging studies showed that the drug impairs function in key brain regions involved in learning and memory that communicate with each other, suggesting that this underlies the negative effects of the drug on memory.”

Origins of ten different strain names

What is Cannabinoid Drug WIN 55, 212-2?

Cannabinoid Drug WIN 55, 212-2 isn’t cannabis as we know it; it’s not THC or CBD. It acts like THC and CBD, but its chemical structure is different. In scientific terms, “WIN 55,212-2 (mesylate) is a potent aminoalkylindole cannabinoid (CB) receptor agonist with Ki values of 62.3 and 3.3 nM for human recombinant CB1 and CB2 receptors, respectively.” Did you get all that? Great.

It’s a synthetic cannabinoid, which – if you’ve been paying attention to the news – is risky…and impaired memory is the least of the dangers.

People aren’t totally sure what synthetic weed does to the body on its own. The recent epidemic of synthetic weed overdoses (including, sadly, some fatalities) is believed to be the result of rat poison contamination.

Synthetic weed (spice, K2, or whatever else you want to call it) contains synthetic cannabinoids, including WIN 55, 212-2 (as well as other chemicals).

So, why does this matter? Because the cannabis research mentioned above isn’t cannabis research – it’s research on synthetic cannabinoids. If you were researching sugar, you wouldn’t research Splenda instead.

You can get a job testing the cannabisThe researchers didn’t hide this – they said in their press release that they used WIN 55, 212-2, but the media, latching on as it does, ran with it, painting the research as authentic cannabis research and tying cannabis to “long-term” memory implications. This is another area of question: the research was only conducted for 30 days, hardly enough time to find a link to long-term implications. Not that it matters anyway, since they were not researching actual cannabis.

What’s more still, the researchers concluded that “A single treatment with the cannabinoid receptor agonist, WIN 55, 212-2, disrupts recognition memory in mice.” If a single exposure of marijuana disrupts recognition memory in people (on a permanent basis), we’re all in trouble.

How Should We Use This Information?

The above led Dr. Neil Lawson, the head researcher, to state, “This work offers valuable new information into the way in which long-term cannabinoid exposure negatively impacts on the brain. Understanding these mechanisms is central to understanding how long-term cannabinoid exposure increases the risk of developing mental health issues and memory problems.”

For his part, he did give a nod towards cannabis’s benefits, adding, “Cannabis-based therapies can be very effective at treating the symptoms of chronic diseases such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis and dramatically increase the quality of life for people living with these conditions. We need to understand the side effects that these people may experience so that we can develop new interventions to minimize these side effects.”

It sounds okay – it sounds like researchers are saying that, yes, cannabis can help assuage symptoms of disease but it may also come with side effects. This isn’t far-fetched; that would put it in the same category as pretty much every other medication. What’s more, the researchers aren’t advocating that cannabis be disregarded altogether; they’re simply saying medical doctors must weigh the good with the bad when using cannabis to treat an ailment. Solid advice, sure. 

The problem, however, lies here: the “cannabis” research didn’t use cannabis.

So Why Use Synthetic Cannabinoids?

The above researchers aren’t the only ones to study cannabinoid drugs in place of genuine marijuana. There are many studies that have previously looked at the same synthetic cannabinoid. And some of them show its benefit. This one, for instance, shows why it may benefit those who suffer from arthritis.

One of the reasons researchers may opt to go the synthetic route is because of the red tape involved with researching actual cannabis. The Schedule I classification makes it a hassle, to say the least. But it also makes it expensive and – for some – risky; certain people fear jeopardizing their jobs by studying marijuana. So, synthetic cannabinoids may be the next best thing…and the easier to access too.

The danger lies in the hyperbole. Most media won’t report the above as “Synthetic cannabinoids linked to impaired memory in mice”; they’ll only point the blame squarely at cannabis, perpetuating the misconceptions that already exist around the herb.

Does this mean that actual cannabis doesn’t impact memory? We don’t know; that’s why more research – research of authentic cannabis – is necessary. Some studies suggest it might; others are looking at it as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Until we have more to go on, jumping to conclusions risks people jumping ship prematurely.

Cannabis Affects Memory….At Least When It’s Synthetic was last modified: by
Jenn Keeler

About the author: Jenn Keeler is a freelance writer and illustrator specializing in humorous lifestyle articles. She is one of the few people on earth actually using an English degree. Her heart belongs to the Denver Broncos and her husband. In that order.