The frontal cortex undergoes substantial structural and functional changes during adolescence and significant developmental changes also occur in the hippocampus. Both of these regions are notably vulnerable to alcohol and other substance use, which is typically initiated during adolescence. Identifying measures of brain function during adolescence, particularly before initiation of drug or alcohol use, is critical to understanding how such behaviors may affect brain development, especially in these vulnerable brain regions. While there is a substantial developmental literature on adolescent working memory, less is known about spatial memory. Thus, a virtual Morris water task (vMWT) was applied to probe function of the adolescent hippocampus. Multiband blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data were acquired at 3T during task performance. Participants included 32 healthy, alcohol- and drug-naïve adolescents, 13-14 years old, examined at baseline of a 3-year longitudinal MRI study. Significantly greater BOLD activation was observed in the hippocampus and surrounding areas, and in prefrontal regions involved in executive function, during retrieval relative to motor performance. In contrast, significantly greater BOLD activation was observed in components of the default mode network, including frontal medial cortex, during the motor condition (when task demands were minimal) relative to the retrieval condition. Worse performance (longer path length) during retrieval was associated with greater activation of angular gyrus/supramarginal gyrus, whereas worse performance (longer path length/latency) during motor control was associated with less activation of frontal pole. Furthermore, while latency (time to complete task) was greater in females than in males, there were no sex differences in path length (accuracy), suggesting that females required more time to navigate the virtual environment, but did so as effectively as males. These findings demonstrate that performance of the vMWT elicits hippocampal and prefrontal activation patterns in early adolescence, similar to activation observed during spatial memory retrieval in adults. Given that this task is sensitive to hippocampal function, and that the adolescent hippocampus is notably vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and other substances, data acquired using this task during healthy adolescent development may provide a framework for understanding neurobiological impact of later initiation of use.
Keywords: BOLD fMRI; Morris water task; adolescence; hippocampus; prefrontal cortex; spatial memory.