Influence of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol on long-term neural correlates of threat extinction memory retention in humans

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2019 Sep;44(10):1769-1777. doi: 10.1038/s41386-019-0416-6. Epub 2019 May 16.


The neural mechanisms and durability of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) impact on threat processing in humans are not fully understood. Herein, we used functional MRI and psychophysiological tools to examine the influence of THC on the mechanisms of conditioned threat extinction learning, and the effects of THC on extinction memory retention when assessed 1 day and 1 week from learning. Healthy participants underwent threat conditioning on day 1. On day 2, participants were randomized to take one pill of THC or placebo (PBO) 2-h before threat extinction learning. Extinction memory retention was assessed 1 day and 1 week after extinction learning. We found that THC administration increased amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) activation during early extinction learning with no significant impact on skin conductance responses (SCR). When extinction memory retention was tested 24 h after learning, the THC group exhibited lower SCRs to the extinguished cue with no significant extinction-induced activations within the extinction network. When extinction memory retention was tested 1 week after learning, the THC group exhibited significantly decreased responses to the extinguished cues within the vmPFC and amygdala, but significantly increased functional coupling between the vmPFC, hippocampus, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex during this extinction retention test. Our results are the first to report a long-term impact of one dose of THC on the functional activation of the threat extinction network and unveil a significant change in functional connectivity emerging after a week from engagement. We highlight the need for further investigating the long-term impact of THC on threat and anxiety circuitry.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Amygdala / drug effects*
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists / pharmacology*
  • Dronabinol / pharmacology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / drug effects*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Galvanic Skin Response / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects*
  • Retention, Psychology / drug effects*
  • Young Adult


  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists
  • Dronabinol