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‘Little Evidence’ That Cannabis Harmfully Impacts Cognition in People with HIV


Cannabis is widely used to help mitigate the symptoms of a variety of conditions and diseases. Specifically, a number of state medical cannabis programs list HIV/AIDS as a qualifying condition, as cannabis can help to eliminate a variety of symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS treatment.

Though, some clinicians have expressed concern how regular cannabis treatments in this regard may impact patient cognition. 

Researchers affiliated with the University of California at San Diego sought to investigate the cognitive impacts of cannabis use in people with HIV through a newly published meta-analysis in the journal Current HIV/AIDS Reports

Ultimately, they conclude that neither the use of whole-plant cannabis or cannabis-based medicines are associated with significant cognitive changes in those with HIV.

Cannabis Use Among People with HIV

In the study abstract, researchers note the potential benefits that cannabis use can offer patients with HIV while recognizing this population’s “high burden of persisting neurocognitive impairment” and physician concerns with adding cannabis into the mix, specifically its potential cognitive effects.

Cannabis use among those with HIV is far from a new trend. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved synthetic oral THC capsules (dronabinol) to treat HIV-induced cachexia, or loss of appetite, in 1985.

Additionally, surveys have consistently affirmed that cannabis use is common among people with HIV, with one 2007 study predating the bulk of medical reform measures in the U.S. still finding that more than 60% of HIV/AIDS patients self-identified as medical cannabis users. 

Another more recent 2022 study noted that 77% and 34% of people with HIV reported lifetime and past-year cannabis use, respectively.

While some of these patients report recreational use as one reason, research over the years has found that cannabis is largely used among people with HIV to stimulate appetite, reduce pain, relax and ease anxiety and help with sleep.

‘Little Evidence’ of Harmful Cognitive Cannabis Impacts

With plenty of existing data to pull from, researchers reviewed data from 34 clinical studies to determine the extent that cannabis impacts cognition among patients with HIV. The results, according to the study, revealed that there is “little evidence” to support that cannabis has a harmful impact on cognition among those with HIV.

“Overall, the number of reported adverse effects were largely outnumbered by beneficial or null findings, providing insufficient support for the detrimental impact of CU [cannabis use] on cognition in PWH [people with HIV],” researchers reported, adding that the results suggest both cannabis and cannabis-based medications can be prescribed to people with HIV “while posing little threat to cognitive function.”

The topic of cannabis use and cognition has seen a recent uptick in popularity, especially given recent conversations surrounding cannabis-induced psychosis (which has largely been linked to pre-existing conditions and vulnerabilities and is not a widespread issue among cannabis consumers, with some advocates arguing that the focus on this topic is a repackaged version of “Reefer Madness” propaganda from decades past).

Of course, it’s important to look at the full picture and recognize how cannabis use and abuse may impact a variety of populations, and myriad studies attempt to look a bit more broadly at the topic.

Recent research shows that cannabis users may actually have a lower chance of cognitive decline overall.  Previous studies have also noted links between heavy cannabis use and cognitive performance, though researchers noted that particular products used, methods of consumption and the reasons for use can also impact cognitive effects associated with cannabis use.

Another recent study similarly found that adolescents who occasionally use cannabis do not see cognitive differences compared to those who abstain, once again highlighting a distinction surrounding frequency of use among other variables.

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