1 University of Crete, Greece
Key words: cannabis, chronic use, neuropsychological evaluation, prefrontal cortex, social cognition, theory of mind.
It is a fact that cannabis is a widely used drug nowadays. Scientific investigation of the past decades documents the existence of psychiatric symptoms, cognitive alterations and behavioral effects as a result of the acute and chronic use of this drug. The present perspective article focuses on the neuropsychological aspects of the effects of chronic cannabis abuse in human and especially on its social dimension.
There is convincing evidence that cannabis chronic, heavy use can affect cognition. According to bibliography, the functions affected the most appear to be the executive ones, as well as the attentional and the mnesic. The neural correlates of this affectation include frontosubcortical networks that already have been associated to similar neuropsychiatric pathology in absence of an addiction.
Although there can be detected certain incongruence between studies’ results that makes further clarification necessary, and despite the fact that there are no concluding results on the irreversibility of the neuropsychological impairment due to cannabis, I suggest we focus on a certain dimension of what we already know – almost – for sure; that is the social dimension of the cognitive functioning that can be referred to as social cognition.
Two constructs linked to social cognition are theory of mind and empathy. The former refers to our ability to identify other people’s intentions, beliefs and feelings, and the latter to our ability to infer and share the emotional experiences of others. Both of them are proved to be related with prefrontal executive functions in order to process and produce social behavior. Thus, on a neural level, social cognition is integrated in regions involved in theory of mind, empathy and also purer prefrontal functions. The brain regions involved are temporal lobe areas, limbic structures and prefrontal regions such as the dorsolateral and orbitofrontal ventormedial cortexes. As is known, inherent or acquired anomalies in those brain regions may give place to observable deficits in social cognition.
In scientific literature, the neural correlates of cognitive impairment due to cannabis include prefrontal, temporal and subcortical regions that are known to be involved in theory of mind and empathy and, thus, in social cognition. This neural overlap can lead to the testable inference that the social dimension of cognitive functioning can also be impaired due to neurotoxicity from cannabis prolonged, heavy usage. A way to examine that can be by testing theory of mind in chronic cannabis users. Spanish authors have already proposed the neuropsychological evaluation of drug addicts seeking treatment, following an empirically supported neurocognitive model, common in most addictions, that includes theory of mind.
As far as future directions are concerned, since we know that cerebral regions such as the prefrontal cortex and other areas normally involved in social cognition present changes due to the neurotoxic effects of chronic use of cannabis, part of the future neuropsychological investigation could focus on that specific subfield in order to specify if and up to what level the social cognition can be affected by cannabis abuse. That would also help in defining the alteration of social cognition due to abuse of that certain drug and in describing its parameters, which – on a more practical level – could be very helpful when it comes to intervening, i.e. diagnosing and treating, the problem.
Citation: TZIRAKI S
Received: 26 Nov 2012; Accepted: .
Copyright: © TZIRAKI. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.
* Correspondence: Ms. SOFIA TZIRAKI, University of Crete, Monis Arsaniou 10, Heraklion 71409, 71409, Crete, Greece, SOFINOS@YAHOO.COM