The Teen Brain

On March 22nd of 2016, the National Institute for Drug Abuse and other organizations convened researchers to review the latest science on how marijuana affects the brain. The presentations are available on video.

Dr. Susan Tapert, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine, had some startling news to share about how marijuana affects the teen brain. Here are a few highlights of her study that compared teen marijuana users to non-users:

  • 45% of high school seniors have tried marijuana, and 21% have used it in the last month.
  • The brain is still developing through adolescence and into the early 20’s.
  • In her study, teen marijuana users had worse memory: they struggled to learn and retain new information more so than the non-user.
  • Other negative affects included decreased ability to pay attention and to process information.
  • The earlier the young person started using marijuana, the worse they performed on cognitive tasks.
  • Among these findings, there is one piece of good news. It appears that the damage done to the teen brain by marijuana use is not permanent. Teen users have the ability to recover most of their cognitive ability if they stop using.

This information is not new. In the research literature on marijuana, there are multiple studies that have reached similar conclusions. In a summary of research to date, TheNew England Journal of Medicine reiterated Dr. Tapert’s conclusion and lifted up the link between marijuana use and an increased likelihood of dropping out of school (July 5, 2014).

Here’s what struck me. In all the debate, research and the policymaking regarding how to improve school achievement and reduce the dropout rate, when was the last time you heard educators and policymakers speak of marijuana as a factor in student performance?

Given marijuana’s negative effects on adolescent brain development, and the prevalence of marijuana use among teens, shouldn’t we have the explicit goal of reducing marijuana use among kids as part of California’s school improvement strategy?

How can we expect young people to get through high school and enter college when their ability to learn and remember information is impaired?

We should be particularly focused on delaying marijuana use. The earlier kids use marijuana, and the more frequent the use, the more damage done.

There is a great need for further research in this area. For example, we need to understand  the effect of marijuana on the brains of young people who experienced trauma in their childhood and thus already struggle emotionally and cognitively. We need research on children who grew up in poverty, in the foster care system and who experienced violence at a young age. 

If you want to watch Dr. Tapert’s presentation, go to 2:18 on the video.

Jim Keddy

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