Female Sex as a Protective Factor in the Effects of Chronic Cannabis Use on Verbal Learning and Memory

J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2021 Jul;27(6):581-591. doi: 10.1017/S1355617721000217.


Objective: The variability of findings in studies examining the effects of chronic cannabis use on neuropsychological functioning highlights the importance of examining contributing factors. Few studies examine the role of sex in the relationship between cannabis and neuropsychological functioning, despite known neurobiological structural differences between males and females. This study examined whether males and females experience differential cognitive effects of chronic cannabis use.

Method: Chronic cannabis users (3+ days per week for >12 months, n = 110, 72% male) and non-users (n = 71, 39% male) completed a neuropsychological test battery. Two multivariate analyses of covariance (MANCOVAs) examined for sex differences in performance within users and non-users on neuropsychological tests, controlling for potential confounding variables. Bonferroni corrections were applied to adjust for multiple comparisons.

Results: Male and female cannabis users did not differ in cannabis use variables. Female cannabis users performed better than males on multiple subtests of the California Verbal Learning Test-II (CVLT-II), a verbal learning and memory test. Male cannabis users performed better than female users on Trial 1 of the CVLT-II (p = .002), and Trail Making Test B (p = .001), which measure attention and cognitive flexibility, respectively. Non-user males and females performed comparably, with the exception of Trail Making Test B (p = .001).

Conclusions: Results suggest that chronic cannabis use differentially impacts males and females, with females exhibiting better verbal learning and memory despite males demonstrating better attention and cognitive flexibility. Further research is needed to understand the potential protective mechanism of female sex on learning and memory effects of cannabis use.

Keywords: Attention; Cannabis; Gender; Marijuana; Memory; Recall.

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Cannabis*
  • Humans
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Protective Factors
  • Verbal Learning