Chronic Use of Synthetic Cannabinoids Is Associated With Impairment in Working Memory and Mental Flexibility

Front Psychiatry. 2020 Jun 30;11:602. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00602. eCollection 2020.


Background: We have recently shown that chronic use of Synthetic Cannabinoids (SCs) has been associated with mood disorders and impairments in executive functions. There is also evidence indicating that chronic SC users have higher rates of comorbidity with depression and psychotic symptoms. Here, we investigate performance on executive function and emotional processing tasks in regular SC users and a measure of schizotypal traits.

Method: Thirty chronic SC users, 32 recreational cannabis users, and 32 non-using control participants, without history of mental disorder, or current substance abuse diagnosis (mean age 26 ± 4.27 years; 85 males, 9 females), were tested in addiction treatment centers in Israel. Computerized neurocognitive function tests; the N-back task, Go/No-Go task, Wisconsin Sorting Card-like Task (WSCT), and emotional face recognition task and questionnaires of depression, anxiety and schizotypal traits and symptoms were used.

Results: SC users have performed worse than recreational cannabis users and non-cannabis users on the N-back working-memory task (lower accuracy) and the WSCT cognitive flexibility task. SC users showed greater schizotypal traits and symptoms compared with recreational cannabis users and non-user control participants. A positive association was found in cannabinoid-user groups between schizotypal traits and symptoms and cognitive and emotional processing measures. Finally, SC users have scored higher on depression and state-trait anxiety measures than recreational cannabis users or healthy control participants.

Conclusions: Repeated use of SCs is associated with impairment in executive functions and emotional processing. These alterations are associated with depression and schizotypal traits and symptoms. This adds to existing evidence on the long-term consequences of SC drugs and their risks for mental health.

Keywords: cannabis; emotional processing; mental flexibility; response inhibition; synthetic cannabinoids.