The Role of Cannabinoids in Neuroanatomic Alterations in Cannabis Users

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Apr 1;79(7):e17-31. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.11.013. Epub 2015 Dec 4.


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.

Keywords: CBD; Cannabidiol; Cannabinoids; Cannabis; Hippocampus; Prefrontal; THC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Cannabidiol / adverse effects
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists / adverse effects
  • Dronabinol / adverse effects
  • Hippocampus / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Smoking / physiopathology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology*
  • Time Factors


  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists
  • Cannabidiol
  • Dronabinol