Is the Adolescent Brain at Greater Vulnerability to the Effects of Cannabis? A Narrative Review of the Evidence

Front Psychiatry. 2020 Aug 26;11:859. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00859. eCollection 2020.


Cannabis use during the critical neurodevelopmental period of adolescence, may lead to brain structural, functional, and histological alterations that may underpin some of the longer-term behavioral and psychological harms associated with it. The endocannabinoid system performs a key regulatory and homeostatic role, that undergoes developmental changes during adolescence making it potentially more susceptible to the effects of exposure to cannabis during adolescence. Here, we synthesize evidence from human studies of adolescent cannabis users showing alterations in cognitive performance as well as in brain structure and function with relevant preclinical evidence to summarize the current state of knowledge. We also focus on the limited evidence that speaks to the hypothesis that cannabis use during adolescence, may pose a greater risk than use during adulthood, identify gaps in current evidence and suggest directions for new research. Existing literature is consistent with the association of cannabis use during adolescence and neurological changes. Adolescence cannabis users show altered functional connectivity within known functional circuits, that may underlie inefficient recruitment of brain regions, as largely increased functional activation has been observed compared to controls. This disruption in some cases may contribute to the development of adverse mental health conditions; increasing the chances or accelerating the onset, of their development. Preclinical evidence, further supports disruption from cannabis use being specific to the developmental period. Future studies are required to better investigate adolescent cannabis use with more accuracy using better defined groups or longitudinal studies and examine the permanency of these changes following caseation of use. Furthermore, research is required to identify heritable risk factors to cannabis use. There is a need for caution when considering the therapeutic potential of cannabis for adolescence and particularly in public discourse leading to potential trivialization of possible harm from cannabis use in adolescence. Current evidence indicates that adolescence is a sensitive period during which cannabis use may result in adverse neurocognitive effects that appear to show a level of permanency into adulthood.

Keywords: adolescence; cannabis; marijuana; neurodevelopment; neurofuctioning.

Publication types

  • Review