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Adolescent Cannabis Use: What is the Evidence for Functional Brain Alteration?

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Background: Cannabis use typically commences during adolescence, a period during which the brain undergoes profound remodeling in areas that are high in cannabinoid receptors and that mediate cognitive control and emotion regulation. It is therefore important to determine the impact of adolescent cannabis use on brain function.

Objective: We investigate the impact of adolescent cannabis use on brain function by reviewing the functional magnetic resonance imaging studies in adolescent samples.

Method: We systematically reviewed the literature and identified 13 functional neuroimaging studies in adolescent cannabis users (aged 13 to 18 years) performing working memory, inhibition and reward processing tasks.

Results: The majority of the studies found altered brain function, but intact behavioural task performance in adolescent cannabis users versus controls. The most consistently reported differences were in the frontal-parietal network, which mediates cognitive control. Heavier use was associated with abnormal brain function in most samples. A minority of studies controlled for the influence of confounders that can also undermine brain function, such as tobacco and alcohol use, psychopathology symptoms, family history of psychiatric disorders and substance use.

Conclusion: Emerging evidence shows abnormal frontal-parietal network activity in adolescent cannabis users, particularly in heavier users. Brain functional alterations may reflect a compensatory neural mechanism that enables normal behavioural performance. It remains unclear if cannabis exposure drives these alterations, as substance use and mental health confounders have not been systematically examined.
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Keywords: Cannabis; adolescence; brain; frontal cortex; functional neuroimaging; hyperactivity; parietal cortex

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2016

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  • Current Pharmaceutical Design publishes timely in-depth reviews covering all aspects of current research in rational drug design. Each issue is devoted to a single major therapeutic area. A Guest Editor who is an acknowledged authority in a therapeutic field has solicits for each issue comprehensive and timely reviews from leading researchers in the pharmaceutical industry and academia.

    Each thematic issue of Current Pharmaceutical Design covers all subject areas of major importance to modern drug design, including: medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, drug targets and disease mechanism.
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