Cannabinoid function in learning, memory and plasticity

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2005:(168):445-77. doi: 10.1007/3-540-26573-2_15.


Marijuana and its psychoactive constituents induce a multitude of effects on brain function. These include deficits in memory formation, but care needs to be exercised since many human studies are flawed by multiple drug abuse, small sample sizes, sample selection and sensitivity of psychological tests for subtle differences. The most robust finding with respect to memory is a deficit in working and short-term memory. This requires intact hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, two brain regions richly expressing CB1 receptors. Animal studies, which enable a more controlled drug regime and more constant behavioural testing, have confirmed human results and suggest, with respect to hippocampus, that exogenous cannabinoid treatment selectively affects encoding processes. This may be different in other brain areas, for instance the amygdala, where a predominant involvement in memory consolidation and forgetting has been firmly established. While cannabinoid receptor agonists impair memory formation, antagonists reverse these deficits or act as memory enhancers. These results are in good agreement with data obtained from electrophysiological recordings, which reveal reduction in neural plasticity following cannabinoid treatment, and increased plasticity following antagonist exposure. The mixed receptor properties of the pharmacological tool, however, make it difficult to define the exact role of any CB1 receptor population in memory processes with any certainty. This makes it all the more important that behavioural studies use selective administration of drugs to specific brain areas, rather than global administration to whole animals. The emerging role of the endogenous cannabinoid system in the hippocampus may be to facilitate the induction of long-term potentiation/the encoding of information. Administration of exogenous selective CB1 agonists may therefore disrupt hippocampus-dependent learning and memory by 'increasing the noise', rather than 'decreasing the signal' at potentiated inputs.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / drug effects*
  • Long-Term Potentiation / drug effects
  • Marijuana Abuse / psychology
  • Maze Learning / drug effects
  • Memory / drug effects*
  • Models, Animal
  • Neuronal Plasticity / drug effects*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / drug effects
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / physiology
  • Synapses / drug effects
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects


  • Cannabinoids
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1