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Marijuana and memory: Newsweek writes about mouse research–but is at least upfront about it

Rating

4 Star

Categories

CAN MARIJUANA RESTORE MEMORY? NEW STUDY SHOWS CANNABIS CAN REVERSE COGNITIVE DECLINE IN MICE

Our Review Summary

This Newsweek article describes a study designed to find and measure the effects of marijuana’s active chemical ingredient on learning and memory in mammals. In this case, it’s mice fed an indeterminate (from the story itself) amount of cannabinoid THC while young, middle-aged, and elderly, then tested at each stage on a trio of measures of rodent cognition.

To its credit, the story goes into some detail about the substantial barriers to studying similar effects in people and offers explicit, attributed cautionary statements about marijuana’s potential adverse effects.

 

Why This Matters

With the boom in the relatively easy availability of recreational and medicinal availability of marijuana in the U.S and elsewhere, stories about studies on the positive and negative effects of marijuana use–especially long-term, chronic use–are flooding legacy, electronic and social media. Current and potential users–particularly the aging population anxious about dementia and accustomed to the lure of chemical fixes for every sign of aging–are especially drawn to articles in magazines like Newsweek for information about the safety, harms and value of smoking or eating cannabinoid products.

Consequently, such articles ideally approach each new study with caution and care, because as a researcher quoted in this article states, there are unknowns and serious “worries about the chronic dosing” that may be involved in therapeutic use of pot, even if it can be determined that the endocannabinoid system in humans brains works like the one in mouse brains.

Other concerns to keep in mind with respect to analogous experiments in humans are the ethical and practical issues of finding young and middle-aged subjects who have not already experimented with cannabis occasionally or often. And contradictory study results about the negative and positive impacts on short- and long-term memory already are piled, er, high.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Although the story describes mouse experiments, it draws parallels to human marijuana use and some mention of the cost of its use–recreationally or medicinally–would have been useful.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Given that the research was on mice, there’s no way to determine whether the intervention would have any benefit at all to people, let alone to determine the scope of the likely benefit. The story was at least upfront about this. But, anytime a story can’t realistically answer this question as it would apply to humans, it’s a sign that the research may be too preliminary to warrant coverage in a national magazine. For this reason, we’re rating it Not Satisfactory.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The report might have mentioned if any or all of the test mice sustained any ill effects (physically or mentally) but it did quote a scientific expert about the potential adverse effects for humans using cannabinoids.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The article did a pretty good job of explaining the experiments and the outcomes, as well as previous research on the neuroscience of cannabinoid impact. It also made it very clear–and upfront–that this was animal research. That’s very important for setting reader expectations.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No mongering here. Learning and memory deficits are a looming epidemic in an aging population, and rates of Alzheimer’s disease are increasing. People have reason to worry. But, is there “treatment mongering” in this article? We think not. From the headline to the last graph, the article emphasizes the pre-clinical nature of the research.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Although the outside principal source of commentary is an Oxford University scientist with skin in the game of cannabis research, his words are temperate and cautionary about any eventual therapeutic use of cannabinoids to duplicate the mouse finds in people.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Alternatives were not discussed. There are prescription medications for memory decline, as well as exercise and stimulation (eg, games).

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

It’s pretty widely known that cannabis products are becoming increasingly available in many states, and medicinally in some.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

This is a barely passing satisfactory–the story establishes that there is a lot of current interest in studying marijuana compounds for human conditions, and that this one is a foray into memory and cognition. Still, it’s not clear if this is a new finding, or not.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Applicable

Oxford University in mid-March issued a news release about its recently opened program to study the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids, a fact cited high up in the Newsweek article. We could not locate a release from University of Bonn or Nature Medicine, so we’ll rate this N/A.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory

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