Investigating a novel fMRI cannabis cue reactivity task in youth

Addict Behav. 2019 Feb:89:20-28. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2018.09.015. Epub 2018 Sep 11.


Objective: Adult and adolescent studies suggest increased motivational responses to cannabis cues among regular cannabis users. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have not explored neural activation in response to visual cannabis cues among adolescents in the United States. Gaining a better understanding of the neural circuits related to cue-elicited craving during adolescence may shed light on the neural basis for the development of problematic cannabis use that could ultimately be targeted for interventions.

Methods: 41 non-treatment-seeking youth (ages 17-21; mean age = 18.83; 46.3% female) who reported regular cannabis use underwent fMRI scanning involving a visual cannabis cue task and completed self-report and biological measures. Whole-brain activation was examined for cannabis cues compared to non-cannabis cues, and for active versus passive cannabis cues. Associations between self-reported substance use and task activation were examined.

Results: Cannabis images were identifiable to adolescents and were rated as more rewarding than matched non-cannabis images (p < .05). Greater activation was found for the cannabis cues compared to non-cannabis cues in bilateral posterior cingulate, cuneus, fusiform, precuneus, inferior temporal and parahippocampal gyri, as well as left thalamus, medial frontal and superior frontal gyri. Cue-elicited activation was not significantly associated with self-reported cannabis use (ps > 0.05). No differences were observed for the active versus passive cue contrast.

Conclusions: Cannabis-using youth show more activation to cannabis cues than non-cannabis cues in brain regions underlying incentive salience, reward, and visual attention. This task could be useful for future studies examining neural underpinnings of reward processes in adolescent cannabis users.

Keywords: Cannabis; Cue reactivity; Marijuana; Youth; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Marijuana Abuse / physiopathology*
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Young Adult