, Volume 176, Issue 2, pp 214–222 | Cite as

Effects of marijuana on neurophysiological signals of working and episodic memory

  • Aaron B. IlanEmail author
  • Michael E. Smith
  • Alan Gevins
Original Investigation



The primary psychoactive constituent of marijuana, Δ9-THC, activates cannabinoid receptors, which are especially abundant in the frontal cortex and hippocampus. Acute marijuana smoking can disrupt working memory (WM) and episodic memory (EM) functions that are known to rely on these regions. However, the effects of marijuana on the brain activity accompanying such cognitive processes remain largely unexplored.


To examine such effects on performance and neurophysiological signals of these functions, EEG recordings were obtained from ten subjects (5M, 5F) performing cognitive tasks before and after smoking marijuana (3.45% Δ9-THC) or a placebo. WM was assessed with a spatial N-back task, and EM was evaluated with a test requiring recognition of words after a 5–10 min delay between study and test.


Marijuana increased heart rate and decreased global theta band EEG power, consistent with increased autonomic arousal. Responses in the WM task were slower and less accurate after smoking marijuana, accompanied by reduced alpha band EEG reactivity in response to increased task difficulty. In the EM task, marijuana was associated with an increased tendency to erroneously identify distracter words as having been previously studied. In both tasks, marijuana attenuated stimulus-locked event-related potentials (ERPs).


The results suggest that marijuana disrupted both sustained and transient attention processes resulting in impaired memory task performance. In subjects most affected by marijuana a pronounced ERP difference between previously studied words and new distracter words was also reduced, suggesting disruption of neural mechanisms underlying memory for recent study episodes.


Marijuana Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol Working memory Episodic memory Event-related potentials 



This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We gratefully acknowledge the dedicated effort of Elizabeth Nichols during data acquisition and analysis, the contributions of Patrick Sullivan and An Jiang in developing the software used to collect and analyze the neurophysiological data, and Dr. Linda McEvoy for scientific advice and guidance. The experiment complied with the current laws of the United States of America.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Aaron B. Ilan
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michael E. Smith
    • 1
  • Alan Gevins
    • 1
  1. 1.San Francisco Brain Research Institute & SAM TechnologySan FranciscoUSA

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