The Double-Drug-Fueled Memory Boost
As we speak, the Marlboro Man is being waterboarded in an undisclosed location. But before his fascist anti-smoking captors go too far, we’ve got news: Smoking may have an actual upside beyond making film noir protagonists look mysterious and helping the wildly overstressed among us to relax. According to a new study from the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas:
Scientists grouped 90 participants by their smoking habits: nonsmokers, cigarette smokers, weed smokers and heavy users of both — smoking weed at least four times a week and 10 cigarettes a day — and administered brain scans and memory tests. And the results shocked them. Why the surprise? It all starts with a small segment of the brain. In anyone, smoker or nonsmoker, the bigger the hippocampus, the better the memory. But you could have the world’s biggest hippocampus and if you use nicotine or weed, it’s going to shrink. The classic “this is your brain on drugs” storyline. This all held true — except for the group of what you and I might call addicts. With them, the response flipped. It’s not that the hippocampus — responsible for, among other things, memory — got any bigger. But memory improved. Francesca Filbey, the study’s lead researcher, says it’s “much more complex” than they had expected.
Heavy use of weed and nicotine improves memory.
It might be complex, but researchers have a single, major suspicion for what’s at play here: withdrawal. The study specified that users abstain from marijuana longer than from cigarettes — four days versus a few hours, which is how long each substance stays in the system. Basically, the subjects weren’t supposed to go into this while high. So it’s possible that the weed-and-nicotine users were in the throes of withdrawal, and nicotine was kicking cognitive function up a notch, Filbey says. Yes, it can do that: Nicotine helps “even out” brain function, particularly of those in need of a fix. But the study’s findings support other research that suggests a cigarette drag might actually increase memory — for everyone, not just this special group of double users — albeit in small and temporary increments.
Let’s not drop our laptops and race to become chain-smokers. For one thing, the sample size of the study was small, which Filbey acknowledges. And it’s crucial to keep in mind that the group of heavy smokers may have experienced memory improvement in comparison to other smokers — but their memories were still crap in comparison to nonsmokers. Ryan Vandrey, who specializes in nicotine and cannabis withdrawal at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is reluctant to draw any hard conclusions from the research, calling the study design “a bit odd.” He also says the media likes to jump on eye-catching science like this, but at the end of the day, we don’t really know all that much about the relationship between drugs and brain function. “My take,” Vandrey says, “is that I don’t really take much from it.”
Even with its limitations, this kind of research could shift the course of further study into drug interactions with the brain. Until now, most studies have focused on the health effects of nicotine or cannabis alone, but haven’t looked at the effects of this funky lung cocktail. And maybe we need to know more. Filbey claims that 70 percent of marijuana smokers also smoke nicotine. If that’s true, this study might tell us just as much about the state of drug research in the U.S. as it does about memory function.