It’s no secret that getting high from weed (i.e., cannabis) won’t do your memory any favors. But the substance in cannabis that gets you high, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is just one of more than 100 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Another phytocannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), actually protects and assists the parts of your brain that form, retain and retrieve memories.

This means that cannabis, despite having a reputation for making you forget everything, can stop and even reverse memory loss. Too good to be true? Read on and judge for yourself.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/ pexels.com

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio/ pexels.com

Through CBD, cannabis unlocks doors to memory processes.

Memories are created through the growth or strengthening of connections between neurons, the nerve cells that make up our brain and nervous system. The brain’s ability to adapt and change due to experience is called neuroplasticity, and this can occur functionally and structurally. Functional plasticity refers to when the brain moves existing connections, and structural plasticity refers to when the brain actually changes its physical structure from learning. That process can involve neurogenesis, which is when the brain creates new neurons and/or neural networks. (More on all of that later.)

In the brain’s neighborhood for memory function/formation/processing, which is the hippocampus, CBD has a kind of house, the endocannabinoid system (ECS). When interviewed by Head, Dr. Nicholas DiPatrizio simplified the ECS as follows:

“[T]he endocannabinoid system is comprised of the natural molecules that our body produces called the endocannabinoids, as well as, the receptors that they bind and activate which are located on cells –and then activating them leads to a whole bunch of different intracellular responses. One good and easy way I think to conceptualize this is the lock and key hypothesis. You can think of the endocannabinoids as well as THC as a key.

“The receptors are located on cells and they are the locks and only certain keys can access those locks. Therefore, another molecule that floats around the body, let’s say, an endorphin. Or we can even now contrast that to an exogenous chemical that’s similar, an opioid, a morphine, they have their keys that do not fit the cannabinoid locks. They have their own locks, the opioid receptors, for example.”

The ECS uses naturally produced chemical messages known as endocannabinoids to communicate. These bind with cannabinoid receptors (e.g., CB1, CB2) found in the brain and nervous system to activate various biological functions, including memory and brain cell activity in the hippocampus. CB1 receptors in particular are abundant in the hippocampus. When CBD binds with these, there are numerous positive impacts on memory acquisition, retention, consolidation and retrieval. To borrow DiPatrizio’s metaphor, CBD is a master key for the door to the brain’s memory factory.

To learn more about how our bodies are designed to work specifically with cannabis in wonderful ways, read “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Endocannabinoids.” Image Credit: Knowable Magazine Science Graphics Library via Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Through CBD, cannabis meets the brain’s needs for memory management.

Antioxidant Properties

Research has shown that oxidative stress, which is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, can lead to a reduction in processing and retaining memories. Free radicals are unstable atoms that can damage cells, and antioxidants scavenge and neutralize free radicals. CBD is one of those heroic scavengers.

Although oxygen saturation (the percentage of oxygen in your blood) is critical to your cells, tissues and organs, oxygen released inside the brain decreases memory function capabilities. When CBD is at work in the hippocampus, it reduces the effects caused by oxygen stress, thereby helping to protect brain cells. For the full scientific explanation of CBD’s role in receptor-mediated neurotoxicity, read this article in “Frontiers in Pharmacology.”

Plant-derived antioxidants, such as those in cannabis, are remarkably powerful in the human brain because they can withstand levels of oxidative stress that human cells cannot. /Photo of Cannabis plant by Michael Fischer/pexels.com

Plant-derived antioxidants, such as those in cannabis, are remarkably powerful in the human brain because they can withstand levels of oxidative stress that human cells cannot. /Photo of Cannabis plant by Michael Fischer/pexels.com

Brain Swelling Reduction

Swelling in the brain can occur when there are blockages in neural pathways, often the result of a failure on the part of the brain’s immune cells to clear dead brain cells. Over time, the swelling leads to memory loss, among other neurodegenerative disorders. CBD prevents that by not only alleviating the swelling through its anti-inflammatory properties, but also increasing cerebral blood flow (CBF) to the hippocampus.

Neuroprotection, Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity

The potential of CBD to protect the neurons responsible for maintaining cognitive functions derives from the combination of CBD’s aforementioned antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. By reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, CBD is supporting neuronal survival and enhancing neurons’ plasticity, including neurogenesis in the hippocampal region. Further experiments are needed to address outstanding questions of consistency, but both in vitro and in vivo evidence supports the theory of CBD driving neurogenesis through the ECS.

CBD’s role in regulating neuronal functions has been well established in the treatment of epilepsy, as Head explores in “A Pulse Check on Epilepsy and Medicinal Cannabis.”  /Image credit: cdc.gov/epilepsy

Brain Plaque Removal

Beta-amyloid plaque, associated most notoriously with Alzheimer’s disease, builds up in the brain when the proteins that reduce it (TREM2 and IL-33) aren’t functioning. When they aren’t doing their job, the brain’s immune cells that consume the plaque and other debris through a process called phagocytosis can’t do their job. CBD is what gets those proteins back to work.

Of note, CBD wastes no time in getting things moving again. A “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” study published in 2021 found that CBD restored the function of TREM2 and IL-33, in addition to improving cognition, when administered in high doses for just two weeks. In fact, CBD increased TREM2 tenfold and IL-33 sevenfold!

study from 2023 showed conclusively that CBD countered Alzheimer’s disease-related neuroinflammation, supporting findings from a 2021 study showing CBD’s role in treating late-stage Alzheimer’s patients by removing brain plaque. Photo by Tree of Life Seeds/pexels.com

Stress Reduction

The main hormone generated by stress is cortisol, and one of the areas hit hard by cortisol is the hippocampus. This is because cortisol can cross the blood-brain barrier and interfere with both memory generation and retrieval.

This doesn’t just apply to stress endured while taking an important exam; everyday stress, if chronic, will weaken your brain’s ability to retrieve memories. If you’re under high stress continuously, your brain will struggle to create short-term memories and have a harder time translating short-term memories into long-term memories.

Thus, place a premium on mellowing out. CBD can mellow you out without impairing your ability to go about your day and complete your tasks, as it has no psychoactive properties.

Learn how to use CBD and other techniques to manage everyday stress with a clear mind by reviewing Head’s wellness strategies for acute episodic and chronic stress /Photo by Maik Kleinert/pexels.com

Better Sleep Quality

Sleep is critical to memory because of the role it plays in dendritic growth in the brain. Dendrites are the growths at the end of neurons that help transmit information from one neuron to the next, and strengthening inter-neural connections enhances neuroplasticity. Interestingly, if you sleep for 90+ minutes (to get both non-REM and REM sleep) after learning something, you’ll better remember what you learned because your brain will have physically changed. This is explained in great deal in the original 2014 study, available here.

That’s all great news – unless you have trouble falling or staying asleep, in which case it’s horrible news. (Don’t let that stress you out though, lest you worsen your memory with cortisol.) If you’re among the many who are sleep-challenged, meet with your physician to discuss using CBD in large enough doses to have a sedative effect. In addition to calming your mind, CBD will ease tension in your muscles and joints, adding to your relaxation. When you don’t have anxiety and pain competing with your sleep quality, you’ll likely see an improvement in your memory.

Another option for alleviating insomnia is CBD’s sister cannabinoid cannabinol (CBN), which Head explains thoroughly in “Insomniacs for the Win! Natural CBN Offers Effective, Legal Alternative to Manufactured Sleep Drugs.” /Photo by Karolina Grabowska/ Pexels.com

Don’t forget to follow up with your physician about trying CBD.

Even if you don’t currently struggle to remember or learn things, CBD is worth exploring to protect your neurons and your brain’s neuroplasticity. Given that CBD has really only been legal in the U.S. at the federal level since 2018, science and academia have a lot of catching up to do. Neuroimaging studies have substantiated many once-putative therapeutic properties, but much of the above must be read with cautious optimism nonetheless. Even so, it does cannabis justice to examine yet another way in which this miracle plant works naturally with – and for – the human body. 

Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.  

 

 

 

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