PhD student, Monash University, Brain and Mental Health Lab
Neuroimaging findings on the brain effects of regular cannabis use
Cannabis is widely used as a recreational substance, and often thought of as relatively harmless. Nevertheless, some regular cannabis users may still develop a clinically significant dependence/cannabis use disorder (CUD, estimated at ~10% of new initiates). CUD itself is associated with mental health issues and cognitive impairment above and beyond that of non-CUD regular use. There is a need to dissociate and understand the neuroanatomical correlates of CUD, that may inform a more targeted understanding of the harms and vulnerabilities separating users with and without CUD.
Abstract: Chronic cannabis (marijuana, hashish) smoking can result in dependence. Rodent studies show reversible downregulation of brain cannabinoid CB(1) (cannabinoid receptor type 1) receptors after chronic exposure to cannabis. However, whether downregulation occurs in humans who chronically smoke cannabis is unknown. Here we show, using positron emission tomography imaging, reversible and regionally selective downregulation of brain cannabinoid CB(1) receptors in human subjects who chronically smoke cannabis. Downregulation correlated with years of cannabis smoking and was selective to cortical brain regions. After ∼4 weeks of continuously monitored abstinence from cannabis on a secure research unit, CB(1) receptor density returned to normal levels. This is the first direct demonstration of cortical cannabinoid CB(1) receptor downregulation as a neuroadaptation that may promote cannabis dependence in human brain.
Pub.: 13 Jul '11, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: With a political debate about the potential risks and benefits of cannabis use as a backdrop, the wave of legalization and liberalization initiatives continues to spread. Four states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska) and the District of Columbia have passed laws that legalized cannabis for recreational use by adults, and 23 others plus the District of Columbia now regulate cannabis use for medical purposes. These policy changes could trigger a broad range of unintended consequences, with profound and lasting implications for the health and social systems in our country. Cannabis use is emerging as one among many interacting factors that can affect brain development and mental function. To inform the political discourse with scientific evidence, the literature was reviewed to identify what is known and not known about the effects of cannabis use on human behavior, including cognition, motivation, and psychosis.
Pub.: 05 Feb '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: Most drugs of abuse lead to a general blunting of dopamine release in the chronic phase of dependence, which contributes to poor outcome. To test whether cannabis dependence is associated with a similar dopaminergic deficit, we examined striatal and extrastriatal dopamine release in severely cannabis-dependent participants (CD), free of any comorbid conditions, including nicotine use. Eleven CD and 12 healthy controls (HC) completed two positron emission tomography scans with [(11)C]-(+)-PHNO, before and after oral administration of d-amphetamine. CD stayed inpatient for 5-7 days prior to the scans to standardize abstinence. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) measures of glutamate in the striatum and hippocampus were obtained in the same subjects. Percent change in [(11)C]-(+)-PHNO-binding potential (ΔBPND) was compared between groups and correlations with MRS glutamate, subclinical psychopathological and neurocognitive parameters were examined. CD had significantly lower ΔBPND in the striatum (P=0.002, effect size (ES)=1.48), including the associative striatum (P=0.003, ES=1.39), sensorimotor striatum (P=0.003, ES=1.41) and the pallidus (P=0.012, ES=1.16). Lower dopamine release in the associative striatum correlated with inattention and negative symptoms in CD, and with poorer working memory and probabilistic category learning performance in both CD and HC. No relationships to MRS glutamate and amphetamine-induced subclinical positive symptoms were detected. In conclusion, this study provides evidence that severe cannabis dependence-without the confounds of any comorbidity-is associated with a deficit in striatal dopamine release. This deficit extends to other extrastriatal areas and predicts subclinical psychopathology.Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 22 March 2016; doi:10.1038/mp.2016.21.
Pub.: 24 Mar '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: The effects of Δ(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, are a pressing concern for global mental health. Patterns of cannabis use are changing drastically owing to legalization, the availability of synthetic analogues (commonly termed spice), cannavaping and an emphasis on the purported therapeutic effects of cannabis. Many of the reinforcing effects of THC are mediated by the dopamine system. Owing to the complexity of the cannabinoid-dopamine interactions that take place, there is conflicting evidence from human and animal studies concerning the effects of THC on the dopamine system. Acute THC administration causes increased dopamine release and neuron activity, whereas long-term use is associated with blunting of the dopamine system. Future research must examine the long-term and developmental dopaminergic effects of THC.
Pub.: 18 Nov '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: A recent shift in legal and social attitudes toward marijuana use has also spawned a surge of interest in understanding the effects of marijuana use on the brain. There is considerable evidence that an adolescent onset of marijuana use negatively impacts white matter coherence. On the other hand, a recent well-controlled study demonstrated no effects of marijuana use on the morphometry of subcortical or cortical structures when users and non-users were matched for alcohol use. Regardless, most studies have involved small, carefully selected samples, so the ability to generalize to larger populations is limited. In an attempt to address this issue, we examined the effects of marijuana use on white matter integrity and cortical and subcortical morphometry using data from the Human Connectome Project (HCP) consortium. The HCP data consists of ultra-high resolution neuroimaging data from a large community sample, including 466 adults reporting recreational marijuana use. Rather than just contrasting two groups of individuals who vary significantly in marijuana usage as typifies prior studies, we leveraged the large sample size provided by the HCP data to examine parametric effects of recreational marijuana use. Our results indicate that the earlier the age of onset of marijuana use, the lower was white matter coherence. Age of onset also also affected the shape of the accumbens, while the number of lifetime uses impacted the shape of the amygdala and hippocampus. Marijuana use had no effect on cortical volumes. These findings suggest subtle but significant effects of recreational marijuana use on brain structure.
Pub.: 14 Jul '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: Cannabis use disorders (CUDs) affect 13.1 million individuals worldwide. Brain morphology specific to CUDs may mediate the adverse behavioral outcomes of CUDs. We reviewed findings from 20 human neuroimaging studies on grey and white matter morphology in cannabis users that specifically included CUD assessments. There is evidence for CUD-specific morphological abnormalities within the striatum, medial temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex, cerebellum, and corpus callosum. Factors that may aggravate morphological abnormalities associated with CUDs include earlier onset age, higher lifetime exposure, and CUD-associated problems, while abstinence may result in (partial) recovery. These observations suggest that the neural substrates of compulsive cannabis use (e.g., striatum) may be distinct from those linked to cannabinoid exposure (e.g., hippocampus). The lack of studies examining individuals with a diagnosed CUD prevents drawing strong conclusions on CUD-specific morphological abnormalities. Comparing cannabis users with and without CUD is essential to delineate the neurobiology and inform new treatment strategies.
Pub.: 08 Apr '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17
Abstract: Shifting policies towards legalisation of cannabis for therapeutic and recreational use raise significant ethical issues for health-care providers seeking evidence-based recommendations. We investigated whether heavy cannabis use is associated with persistent harms to the hippocampus, if exposure to cannabidiol offers protection, and whether recovery occurs with abstinence. To do this, we assessed 111 participants: 74 long-term regular cannabis users (with an average of 15.4 years of use) and 37 non-user healthy controls. Cannabis users included subgroups of participants who were either exposed to Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) but not to cannabidiol (CBD) or exposed to both, and former users with sustained abstinence. Participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging from which three measures of hippocampal integrity were assessed: (i) volume; (ii) fractional anisotropy; and (iii) N-acetylaspartate (NAA). Three curve-fitting models across the entire sample were tested for each measure to examine whether cannabis-related hippocampal harms are persistent, can be minimised (protected) by exposure to CBD or recovered through long-term abstinence. These analyses supported a protection and recovery model for hippocampal volume (P=0.003) and NAA (P=0.001). Further pairwise analyses showed that cannabis users had smaller hippocampal volumes relative to controls. Users not exposed to CBD had 11% reduced volumes and 15% lower NAA concentrations. Users exposed to CBD and former users did not differ from controls on any measure. Ongoing cannabis use is associated with harms to brain health, underpinned by chronic exposure to THC. However, such harms are minimised by CBD, and can be recovered with extended periods of abstinence.
Pub.: 13 Jan '16, Pinned: 27 Jul '17
Abstract: The past few decades have seen a marked change in the composition of commonly smoked cannabis. These changes primarily involve an increase of the psychoactive compound ∆(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and a decrease of the potentially therapeutic compound cannabidiol (CBD). This altered composition of cannabis may be linked to persistent neuroanatomic alterations typically seen in regular cannabis users. In this review, we summarize recent findings from human structural neuroimaging investigations. We examine whether neuroanatomic alterations are 1) consistently observed in samples of regular cannabis users, particularly in cannabinoid receptor-high areas, which are vulnerable to the effects of high circulating levels of THC, and 2) associated either with greater levels of cannabis use (e.g., higher dosage, longer duration, and earlier age of onset) or with distinct cannabinoid compounds (i.e., THC and CBD). Across the 31 studies selected for inclusion in this review, neuroanatomic alterations emerged across regions that are high in cannabinoid receptors (i.e., hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, amygdala, cerebellum). Greater dose and earlier age of onset were associated with these alterations. Preliminary evidence shows that THC exacerbates, whereas CBD protects from, such harmful effects. Methodologic differences in the quantification of levels of cannabis use prevent accurate assessment of cannabis exposure and direct comparison of findings across studies. Consequently, the field lacks large "consortium-style" data sets that can be used to develop reliable neurobiological models of cannabis-related harm, recovery, and protection. To move the field forward, we encourage a coordinated approach and suggest the urgent development of consensus-based guidelines to accurately and comprehensively quantify cannabis use and exposure in human studies.
Pub.: 10 Feb '16, Pinned: 27 Jul '17
Abstract: Cannabis (CB) use and dependence are associated with regionally specific alterations to brain circuitry and substantial psychosocial impairment.The objective of this study was to investigate the association between CB use and dependence, and the volumes of brain regions critically involved in goal-directed learning and behaviour-the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and caudate.In the largest multi-site structural imaging study of CB users vs healthy controls (HC), 140 CB users and 121 HC were recruited from four research sites. Group differences in OFC and caudate volumes were investigated between HC and CB users and between 70 dependent (CB-dep) and 50 non-dependent (CB-nondep) users. The relationship between quantity of CB use and age of onset of use and caudate and OFC volumes was explored.CB users (consisting of CB-dep and CB-nondep) did not significantly differ from HC in OFC or caudate volume. CB-dep compared to CB-nondep users exhibited significantly smaller volume in the medial and the lateral OFC. Lateral OFC volume was particularly smaller in CB-dep females, and reduced volume in the CB-dep group was associated with higher monthly cannabis dosage.Smaller medial OFC volume may be driven by CB dependence-related mechanisms, while smaller lateral OFC volume may be due to ongoing exposure to cannabinoid compounds. The results highlight a distinction between cannabis use and dependence and warrant examination of gender-specific effects in studies of CB dependence.
Pub.: 02 Apr '17, Pinned: 27 Jul '17
Abstract: Cannabis use is associated with neuroanatomical alterations in the hippocampus. While the hippocampus is composed of multiple subregions, their differential vulnerability to cannabis dependence remains unknown.The objective of the study is to investigate gray matter alteration in each of the hippocampal subregions (presubiculum, subiculum, cornu ammonis (CA) subfields CA1-4, and dentate gyrus (DG)) as associated with cannabis use and dependence.A total of 35 healthy controls (HC), 22 non-dependent (CB-nondep), and 39 dependent (CB-dep) cannabis users were recruited. We investigated group differences in hippocampal subregion volumes between HC, CB-nondep, and CB-dep users. We further explored the association between CB use variables (age of onset of regular use, monthly use, lifetime use) and hippocampal subregions in CB-nondep and CB-dep users separately.The CA1, CA2/3, CA4/DG, as well as total hippocampal gray matter were reduced in volume in CB-dep but not in CB-nondep users, relative to HC. The right CA2/3 and CA4/DG volumes were also negatively associated with lifetime cannabis use in CB-dep users.Our results suggest a regionally and dependence-specific influence of cannabis use on the hippocampus. Hippocampal alteration in cannabis users was specific to the CA and DG regions and confined to dependent users.
Pub.: 21 Apr '17, Pinned: 27 Jul '17
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