THC Makes Rats Lazy and Less Willing to Try Cognitively Demanding Tasks

Summary: Researchers report that there may be some truth in the belief that marijuana causes laziness, in rats at least.

Source: University of British Columbia.

New research from the University of British Columbia suggests there may be some truth to the belief that marijuana use causes laziness— at least in rats.

The study, published today in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, found that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, makes rats less willing to try a cognitively demanding task.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that when we gave THC to these rats, they basically became cognitively lazy,” said Mason Silveira, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of psychology. “What’s interesting, however, is that their ability to do the difficult challenge was unaffected by THC. The rats could still do the task— they just didn’t want to.”

For the study, researchers looked at the effects of both THC and cannabidiol (CBD) on rats’ willingness to exert cognitive effort.

They trained 29 rats to perform a behavioural experiment in which the animals had to choose whether they wanted an easy or difficult challenge to earn sugary treats.

Under normal circumstances, most rats preferred the harder challenge to earn a bigger reward. But when the rats were given THC, the animals switched to the easier option, despite earning a smaller reward.

When they looked at the effect of CBD, an ingredient in marijuana that does not result in a high, researchers found the chemical did not have any effect on rats’ decision-making or attention. CBD, which is believed to be beneficial in treating pain, epilepsy and even cancer, also didn’t block the negative effects of THC.

“This was surprising, as it had been suggested that high concentrations of CBD could modulate or reduce the negative effects of THC,” said Catharine Winstanley, senior author of the study and an associate professor in UBC’s department of psychology. “Unfortunately, that did not appear to be the case.”

Image shows a rat.

They trained 29 rats to perform a behavioural experiment in which the animals had to choose whether they wanted an easy or difficult challenge to earn sugary treats. Neurosciencenews image is adapted from the UBC video.

Given how essential willingness to exert cognitive effort is for people to achieve success, Winstanley said the findings underscore the importance of realizing the possible effect of cannabis use on impairing willingness to engage in harder tasks.

While some people view marijuana as a panacea that can cure all ailments, the findings also highlight a need for more research to determine what THC does to the human brain to alter decision-making. That could eventually allow scientists to block these effects of THC, allowing those who use medical marijuana to enjoy the possible benefits of cannabis without the less desirable cognitive effects.

METHOD

At the beginning of each behavioural experiment, rats chose between two levers to signal whether they wanted an easy or hard challenge.

Choosing the easy challenge resulted in a light turning on for one second, which the rats could easily detect and respond to by poking it with their nose, receiving one sugar pellet as a reward. In the more difficult challenge, the light turned on for only 0.2 seconds, rewarding the rat with two sugar pellets if they responded with a nose poke.

About this psychology research article

Source: University of British Columbia
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the UBC video.
Video Source: The video is credited to ubcpublicaffairs.
Original Research: Full open access research (pdf) for “Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol decreases willingness to exert cognitive effort in male rats” by Mason M. Silveira, MA; Wendy K. Adams, PhD; Maria Morena, PhD; Matthew N. Hill, PhD; and Catharine A. Winstanley, PhD in Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Published online August 23 2016 doi:10.1503/jpn.150363

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University of British Columbia. “THC Makes Rats Lazy and Less Willing to Try Cognitively Demanding Tasks.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 24 August 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/thc-lazy-cognition-4902/>.
University of British Columbia. (2016, August 24). THC Makes Rats Lazy and Less Willing to Try Cognitively Demanding Tasks. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved August 24, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/thc-lazy-cognition-4902/
University of British Columbia. “THC Makes Rats Lazy and Less Willing to Try Cognitively Demanding Tasks.” http://neurosciencenews.com/thc-lazy-cognition-4902/ (accessed August 24, 2016).

Abstract

Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol decreases willingness to exert cognitive effort in male rats

Background: Acceptance of cannabis use is growing. However, prolonged use is associated with diminished psychosocial outcomes, potentially mediated by drug-induced cognitive impairments. Δ9-etrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, yet other phytocannabinoids in the plant, such as cannabidiol (CBD), have unique properties. Given that CBD can modulate the undesirable effects of THC, therapeutic agents, such as nabiximols, contain higher CBD:THC ratios than illicit marijuana. We tested the hypothesis that THC impairs a relevant cognitive function for long-term success, namely willingness to exert cognitive effort for greater rewards, and that CBD could attenuate such decision-making impairments.

Methods: Male Long–Evans rats (n = 29) performing the rat cognitive effort task (rCET) received acute THC and CBD, independently and concurrently, in addition to other cannabinoids. Rats chose between 2 options differing in reward magnitude, but also in the cognitive effort (attentional load) required to obtain them.

Results: We found that THC decreased choice of hard trials without impairing the animals’ ability to accurately complete them. Strikingly, this impairment was correlated with CB1 receptor density in the medial prefrontal cortex — an area previously implicated in effortful decision-making. In contrast, CBD did not affect choice. Coadministration of 1:1 CBD:THC matching that in nabiximols modestly attenuated the deleterious effects of THC in “slacker” rats.

Limitations: Only male rats were investigated, and the THC/CBD coadministration experiment was carried out in a subset of individuals.

Conclusion: These findings confirm that THC, but not CBD, selectively impairs decision-making involving cognitive effort costs. However, coadministration of CBD only partially ameliorates such THC-induced dysfunction.

“Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol decreases willingness to exert cognitive effort in male rats” by Mason M. Silveira, MA; Wendy K. Adams, PhD; Maria Morena, PhD; Matthew N. Hill, PhD; and Catharine A. Winstanley, PhD in Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Published online August 23 2016 doi:10.1503/jpn.150363

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