Early-and-regular cannabis use by youth is associated with alteration in brain circuits that support cognitive control

Summary: Compared to peers who do not use cannabis, teens and young adults with significant marijuana use history have reduced activation in brain areas that support cognitive control and conflict resolution.

Source: Elsevier

The development of neural circuits in youth, at a particularly important time in their lives, can be heavily influenced by external factors–specifically the frequent and regular use of cannabis. A new study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), reports that alterations in cognitive control–an ensemble of processes by which the mind governs, regulates and guides behaviors, impulses, and decision-making based on goals are directly affected.

The researchers found that these brain alterations were less intense in individuals who recently stopped using cannabis, which may suggest that the effects of cannabis are more robust in recent users. Additional findings from the study also suggest greater and more persistent alterations in individuals who initiated cannabis use earlier, while the brain is still developing.

“Most adults with problematic substance use now were most likely having problems with drugs and alcohol in adolescence, a developmental period during which the neural circuits underlying cognitive control processes continue to mature,” said lead author Marilyn Cyr, PhD. “As such, the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of substance use, particularly cannabis–the most commonly used recreational drug by teenagers worldwide,” added the postdoctoral scientist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University, New York.

The findings are based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data acquired from 28 adolescents and young adults (aged 14-23 years) with significant cannabis use and 32 age and sex-matched non-using healthy controls. Participants were scanned during their performance of a Simon Spatial Incompatibility Task, a cognitive control task that requires resolving cognitive conflict to respond accurately.

Compared to their healthy counterparts, the adolescents and young adults with significant cannabis use showed reduced activation in the frontostriatal circuits that support cognitive control and conflict resolution.

The authors also examined the degree to which fluctuations in activity in relation to conflict resolution is synchronized across the different regions comprised in this frontostriatal circuit (that is, to what extent are regions functionally connected with each other). Although circuit connectivity did not differ between cannabis-using and non-using youth, the research team found an association between how early individuals began regularly using cannabis and the extent to which frontostriatal regions were disrupted, suggesting that earlier chronic use may have a larger impact on circuit development than use of later onset.

This shows brain scans from teen cannabis users
Conflict-related neural activations. Between-group t-map of conflict-related activations (voxel-wise cluster-defining threshold of p – .001, familywise error-corrected cluster extent correction of p – .05) and within-group t-maps (cluster-defining threshold of p – .001, uncorrected), adjusting for age and gender. ACC = anterior cingulate cortex; CU = cannabis user; HC = healthy control; MCC = middle cingulate cortex; OFC = orbitofrontal cortex; PCG = postcentral gyrus; PreCu = precuneus; SMG = supramarginal gyrus; Thal = thalamus. The image is credited to Elsevier.

“The present findings support the mission of the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study, a longitudinal study aimed at understanding the developmental trajectory of brain circuits in relation to cannabis use,” said Dr. Cyr.

“In addition, these findings are a first step towards identifying brain-based targets for early interventions that reduce addiction behaviors by enhancing self-regulatory capacity.

“Given that substance use and relapse rates are associated with control processes, interventions based on neural stimulation, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and behavioral interventions, such as cognitive training, that specifically target the brain circuits underlying these control processes may be helpful as adjunct intervention strategies to complement standard treatment programs for cannabis use disorder.”

Dr. Cyr is a postdoctoral scientist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University, New York. Her research focuses on understanding the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying the development of impulsive-compulsive behaviors across healthy and psychiatric populations, with a particular emphasis on pediatric populations.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Mary Billingsley – Elsevier
Image Source:
The image is credited to Elsevier.

Original Research: Closed access
“Deficient Functioning of Frontostriatal Circuits During the Resolution of Cognitive Conflict in Cannabis-Using Youth”. Marilyn Cyr, PhD, PsyD∗, Gregory Z. Tau, MD, PhD, Martine Fontaine, BS, Frances R. Levin, MD, Rachel Marsh, PhD.
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.09.436


Deficient Functioning of Frontostriatal Circuits During the Resolution of Cognitive Conflict in Cannabis-Using Youth

Disturbances in self-regulatory control are involved in the initiation and maintenance of addiction, including cannabis use disorder. In adults, long-term cannabis use is associated with disturbances in frontostriatal circuits during tasks that require the engagement of self-regulatory control, including the resolution of cognitive conflict. Understudied are the behavioral and neural correlates of these processes earlier in the course of cannabis use disentangled from effects of long-term use. The present study investigated the functioning of frontostriatal circuits during the resolution of cognitive conflict in cannabis-using youth.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired from 28 cannabis-using youth and 32 age-matched healthy participants during the performance of a Simon task. General linear modeling was used to compare patterns of brain activation during correct responses to conflict stimuli across groups. Psychophysiologic interaction analyses were used to examine conflict-related frontostriatal connectivity across groups. Associations of frontostriatal activation and connectivity with cannabis use measures were explored.

Decreased conflict-related activity was detected in cannabis-using versus healthy control youth in frontostriatal regions, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, striatum, pallidum, and thalamus. Frontostriatal connectivity did not differ across groups, but negative connectivity between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and striatum was detected in the 2 groups.

These findings are consistent with previous reports of cannabis-associated disturbances in frontostriatal circuits in adults and point to the specific influence of cannabis on neurodevelopmental changes in youth. Future studies should examine whether frontostriatal functioning is a reliable marker of cannabis use disorder severity and a potential target for circuit-based interventions.

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