A $500,000 gift from international best-selling author and mental health advocate Patricia Cornwell is funding research in America into the impact of medical marijuana.

McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers will explore the potential impact of medical marijuana on cognition, brain structure and function. The Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) Program, will also gauge study participants’ perceptions of their own quality of life as it relates to medical marijuana treatment. Patricia Cornwell said: “We are seeing the country’s view on marijuana shift dramatically and now is the time to allow science to inform our policies and our decisions.,”

The author, who is a member of McLean Hospital’s National Council and was presented with the hospital’s highest honour in 2012 for her mental health advocacy, added: “The MIND Program has the potential to revolutionise what we know about medical marijuana and what we think we know.” Researchers in the team say that, despite the move toward the legalisation of medical marijuana, with 23 states and the District of Columbia legalising its use, no published studies to date have assessed its potential impact on cognition and brain function.

Lead investigator Staci Gruber, PhD, director of the Cognitive and Clinical Neuroimaging Core at McLean Hospital and associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said: “At this point, policy has vastly outpaced science, with little empirical data available regarding the impact of medical marijuana on cognitive function, despite the legal status of the product in a growing number of states. “Findings from this investigation will ultimately foster a greater understanding of the impact of medical marijuana on cognitive function and brain structure, and may in turn facilitate the examination of the efficacy of marijuana for the different disorders for which it is prescribed.”

Because marijuana is difficult to standardise and highly variable, the majority of current research studies investigate the potential therapeutic properties of cannabinoid chemicals delivered in standardised pharmaceuticals that have not yet reached the market. Also, none so far have included an assessment of neuropsychological performance before, during and after treatment. As a result, there is a gap in the knowledge between ongoing medical marijuana research, the products currently available to the public and their relationship to cognitive function, say the team.

Staci Gruber said: “Given the considerable difficulty with cognitive function and disrupted mood experienced by patients with severe medical disorders, the addition of marijuana, which has shown promise in alleviating a range of symptoms, could potentially improve cognitive performance. “Equally critical, data showing a loss or impairment of cognitive function following the use of medical marijuana could inform alternative courses of treatment and prevent unjustified exposure to harm, especially in vulnerable populations.” The initial phase of the MIND Program is expected to last two years, with the expectation of extending the investigation to include clinical trials and additional areas of research.