Harvard University: Medical Marijuana Improves Executive Functions, Reduces Opiate Use

 

Questions

Does marijuana/cannabis affect executive functioning (the ability to decide and execute)?  Is there a difference in the effects of medicinal and recreational uses of marijuana?  Does marijuana have valid medical applications?

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning is a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

Psychologists have identified the following mental control skills as part of executive functioning.

  1. Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive.” (When Aunt Sue called, it would have made sense to tell her, “Let me check the calendar first. It sounds great, but I just need to look at everybody’s schedules before I commit the whole family.”)
  2. Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation. (When the question emerged regarding who would watch the cats, Robin was stymied. Her husband, on the other hand, began generating possible solutions and was able to solve the problem relatively easily.)
  3. Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings. (The example here is Robin’s anger when confronted with her own impulsive behavior in committing the family before checking out the dates: “Why are you all being so negative?”)
  4. Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies. (Robin thought about calling to check on the date of the reunion, but she just didn’t get around to it until her husband initiated the process.)
  5. Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. (Robin could not keep the dates of the reunion in her head long enough to put them on the calendar after her initial phone call from Aunt Sue.)
  6. Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future- oriented task demands. (In this case, Robin lacked the ability to systematically think about what the family would need to be ready for the trip and to get to the intended place at the intended time with their needs cared for along the way.)
  7. Organization of Materials – The ability to impose order on work, play, and storage spaces. (It was Robin’s job to organize the things needed for the trip. However, she just piled things into the car rather than systematically making checklists and organizing things so important items would be easily accessible, so the space would be used efficiently, and so that people and “stuff” would be orderly and comfortable in the car.)
  8. Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected. (Despite the fact that they’re off to Missouri without knowing how to get there, with almost no planning for what will happen along the way, and without a map, Robin does not understand why her husband is so upset.)

Harvard University Study Conclusions

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Data from the current investigation provide preliminary evidence that after 3 months of treatment, medical marijuana users did not experience executive functioning deficits, which are often observed in regular, recreational marijuana users.

In fact, medical marijuana patients evidenced improvement in certain aspects of performance on these measures, particularly with regard to time required to complete tasks.

Further, patients reported some improvements on measures of clinical state and general health as well as a decrease in conventional pharmaceuticals, notably opiate use, which was reduced by 42% between the baseline and Visit 2 assessment.


References

Executive Functioning:  pp. 9-14 of Late, Lost, and Unprepared by Joyce Cooper-Kahn, Ph.D. & Laurie Dietzel, Ph.D. Published by Woodbine House, 6510 Bells Mill Road, Bethesda, MD 20817. 800-843-7323 http://www.woodbinehouse.com.  Retrieved 24.5.2017 from http://www.ldonline.org/article/29122/

Medical Marijuana Study:  Gruber SA, Sagar KA, Dahlgren MK, Racine MT, Smith RT and Lukas SE (2016) Splendor in the Grass? A Pilot Study Assessing the Impact of Medical Marijuana on Executive Function. Front. Pharmacol. 7:355. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2016.00355

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