There is growing evidence that long-term, heavy cannabis use is associated with alterations in regional brain volumes. Although these changes are frequently attributed to the neurotoxic effects of cannabis, it is possible that some abnormalities might predate use and represent markers of vulnerability. To date, no studies have examined whether structural brain abnormalities are present before the onset of cannabis use. This study aims to determine whether adolescents who have initiated cannabis use early (i.e., before age 17 years) show premorbid structural abnormalities in the amygdala, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.
Participants (n = 121) were recruited from primary schools in Melbourne, Australia, as part of a larger study examining adolescent emotional development. Participants underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging at age 12 years and were assessed for cannabis use 4 years later, at age 16 years. At the follow-up assessment, 28 participants had commenced using cannabis (16 female subjects [57%]), and 93 had not (43 female subjects [46%]).
Smaller orbitofrontal cortex volumes at age 12 years predicted initiation of cannabis use by age 16 years. The volumes of other regions (amygdala, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex) did not predict later cannabis use.
These findings suggest that structural abnormalities in the orbitofrontal cortex might contribute to risk for cannabis exposure. Although the results have important implications for understanding neurobiological predictors of cannabis use, further research is needed to understand their relationship with heavier patterns of use in adulthood as well as later abuse of other substances.
Copyright © 2012 Society of Biological Psychiatry. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- Orbitofrontal cortex and neuromaturation: a gateway to risk? [Biol Psychiatry. 2012]
- [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]