Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol reduces the performance in sensory delayed discrimination tasks. A pharmacological-fMRI study in healthy volunteers

IBRO Rep. 2019 Nov 13;7:117-128. doi: 10.1016/j.ibror.2019.11.004. eCollection 2019 Dec.


Background: Cannabis proofed to be effective in pain relief, but one major side effect is its influence on memory in humans. Therefore, the role of memory on central processing of nociceptive information was investigated in healthy volunteers.

Methods: In a placebo-controlled cross-over study including 22 healthy subjects, the effect of 20 mg oral Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on memory involving nociceptive sensations was studied, using a delayed stimulus discrimination task (DSDT). To control for nociceptive specificity, a similar DSDT-based study was performed in a subgroup of thirteen subjects, using visual stimuli.

Results: For each nociceptive stimulus pair, the second stimulus was associated with stronger and more extended brain activations than the first stimulus. These differences disappeared after THC administration. The THC effects were mainly located in two clusters comprising the insula and inferior frontal cortex in the right hemisphere, and the caudate nucleus and putamen bilaterally. These cerebral effects were accompanied in the DSDT by a significant reduction of correct ratings from 41.61% to 37.05% after THC administration (rm-ANOVA interaction "drug" by "measurement": F (1,21) = 4.685, p = 0.042). Rating performance was also reduced for the visual DSDT (69.87% to 54.35%; rm-ANOVA interaction of "drug" by "measurement": F (1,12) = 13.478, p = 0.003) and reflected in a reduction of stimulus-related brain deactivations in the bilateral angular gyrus.

Conclusions: Results suggest that part of the effect of THC on pain may be related to memory effects. THC reduced the performance in DSDT of nociceptive and visual stimuli, which was accompanied by significant effects on brain activations. However, a pain specificity of these effects cannot be deduced from the data presented.

Keywords: Cannabis; Clincial pharmacology; Human; Pain; Pharm-fMRI; Pharmacometrics.