McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School Researchers to Conduct Revolutionary Study on Medical Marijuana and the Brain

October 6, 2014

Thanks to a $500,000 gift from international best-selling author and mental health advocate Patricia Cornwell, McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers will launch a landmark new program that will more fully explore the potential impact of medical marijuana on cognition, brain structure and function. This first-of-its-kind program, known as the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) Program, will also gauge study participants’ perceptions of their own quality of life as it relates to medical marijuana treatment.

“We are seeing the country’s view on marijuana shift dramatically and now is the time to allow science to inform our policies and our decisions,” said Cornwell, who is a member of McLean Hospital’s National Council ​and was presented with the hospital’s highest honor in 2012 for her mental health advocacy. “The MIND Program has the potential to revolutionize what we know about medical marijuana and what we think we know.”

Despite the move toward the legalization of medical marijuana, with 23 states and the District of Columbia legalizing its use, no published studies to date have assessed its direct and specific potential impact on cognition and brain function. Therefore, it is critical to investigate the impact that medical marijuana has on patients, the results of which could inform the course of treatment, safety guidelines and public policy. As the number of states who have passed medical marijuana laws continues to grow, the “need to know” has never been more important, relevant or timely.

“At this point, policy has vastly outpaced science, with little empirical data available regarding the impact of medical marijuana on cognitive function, despite the legal status of the product in a growing number of states,” said lead investigator Staci Gruber, PhD, director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Core at McLean Hospital and associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Findings from this investigation will ultimately foster a greater understanding of the impact of medical marijuana on cognitive function and brain structure, and may in turn facilitate the examination of the efficacy of marijuana for the different disorders for which it is prescribed.”

Marijuana is difficult to standardize and highly variable; consequently, the majority of current research studies investigate the potential therapeutic properties of cannabinoid chemicals delivered in standardized pharmaceuticals that have not yet reached the market, and thus do not represent real life situations. In addition, none thus far have included an assessment of neuropsychological performance before, during and after treatment. As a result, there is a gap in the knowledge between ongoing medical marijuana research, the products currently available to the public, and their relationship to cognitive function.

Thanks to Cornwell’s donation, the MIND Program will begin to address that gap.

“Given the considerable difficulty with cognitive function and disrupted mood experienced by patients with severe medical disorders, the addition of marijuana, which has shown promise in alleviating a range of symptoms, could potentially improve cognitive performance,” said Gruber. “Equally critical, data showing a loss or impairment of cognitive function following the use of medical marijuana could inform alternative courses of treatment and prevent unjustified exposure to harm, especially in vulnerable populations.”

The initial phase of the MIND Program is expected to last approximately two years, with the expectation of extending the investigation to include clinical trials and additional areas of research.

Gruber will moderate a discussion about medical marijuana with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta on October 8, 2014 at the Kennedy School of Government. For more information, read more here.

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