Syndicated in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (New York), Aug. 8, 1994


Middle age, not marijuana, blamed for memory lapses

By Kenton Robinson
of The Hartford Courant

It may be that you sometimes wonder: Did the dope you did in the days of your youth make you dopey today?

If not, then why do you remember so little of what you did in 1973? Why do you forget whom you're calling the minute you dial the phone?

There's an explanation for these synapse lapses, say researchers who study memory and the human brain, and it has nothing to do with what you fed your head in the '60s.

It wasn't the drugs; it's just muddle age.

Those who smoked pot have not forgotten any more than those who did not, nor are they any more forgetful, says Alan Searleman, professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, St. Lawrence County, and, with Douglas Herrmann, author of the new book "Memory From a Broader Perspective."

It is difficult, he says, for even the straightest person to remember any real detail what he or she was doing 10, 15, 20 years ago. And losing your car keys, or even your car in the mall parking lot, is an experience common to all ages, though one that becomes more common the older you grow.

"I would say unless you took things to extremes, you're likely not to have any ill effects due to the fact that you smoked marijuana."

Or tripped.

"There's really no evidence that any of the recreational compounds - cocaine, marijuana, LSD - are capable of causing significant or prolonged brain damage that would have any effect on anybody's ability to function adequately in a cognitive way," says Arthur P. Leccese, an associate professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who does research on the effect of drugs on memory.

Unless you overdosed, of course, but an overdose "is a life threatening emergency where a person has taken so much of the drug" that he's convulsing and internal organs are shutting down. If you're not sure whether you ever overdosed, you didn't.

But there is one drug, he says, that even in small doses can kill memories. And it's the one many former hippies have turned to in middle age.

"I teach a course where we talk about memory loss as a consequence of brain damage, and if you scour that literature, you'll find that - short of overdose - the only drugs we know do it are alcohol and other organic solvents, glue sniffing, stuff like that," says Leccese. "The only drug that is demonstrated to be certainly associated with brain damage and brain damage to areas involving memory is alcohol."

If your memories of the '60s seem all run-together like a kid's watercolors, that may be because much of what you experienced back then was under the influence.

Researchers know that memory is very "state dependent," which is to say, you tend to remember things better if you recreate the state in which you experienced them in the first place.

In other words, if you were stoned then, you might find yourself better able to recall those days if you got stoned now.

So if you're spaced today, it's not because you got wasted yesterday.

More likely, Searleman says, it's plain old grown-up weariness brought on by the job, the kids and the mortgage.



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