Mesolimbic dopamine dysregulation as a signature of information processing deficits imposed by prenatal THC exposure

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Mar 8:105:110128. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2020.110128. Epub 2020 Oct 6.


Cannabis is the illicit drug most widely used by pregnant women worldwide. Its growing acceptance and legalization have markedly increased the risks of child psychopathology, including psychotic-like experiences, which lowers the age of onset for a first psychotic episode. As the majority of patients with schizophrenia go through a premorbid condition long before this occurs, understanding neurobiological underpinnings of the prodromal stage of the disease is critical to improving illness trajectories and therapeutic outcomes. We have previously shown that male rat offspring prenatally exposed to Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a rat model of prenatal cannabinoid exposure (PCE), exhibit extensive molecular and synaptic changes in dopaminergic neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), converging on a hyperdopaminergic state. This leads to a silent psychotic-like endophenotype that is unmasked by a single exposure to THC. Here, we further characterized the VTA dopamine neuron and sensorimotor gating functions of PCE rats exposed to acute stress or a challenge of the D2 receptor agonist apomorphine, by using in vivo single-unit extracellular recordings and Prepulse Inhibition (PPI) analyses. At pre-puberty, PCE male rat offspring display a reduced population activity of VTA dopamine neurons in vivo, the majority of which are tonically active. PCE male progeny also exhibit enhanced sensitivity to dopamine D2 (DAD2) receptor activation and a vulnerability to acute stress, which is associated with compromised sensorimotor gating functions. This data extends our knowledge of the multifaceted sequelae imposed by PCE in the mesolimbic dopamine system of male pre-adolescent rats, which renders a neural substrate highly susceptible to subsequent challenges that may trigger psychotic-like outcomes.

Keywords: Cannabis; Dopamine; Dopamine D2 receptor; Neurodevelopment; Neuropsychiatric disorders; Stress; Vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / drug effects*
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / metabolism
  • Dronabinol / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / metabolism*
  • Prepulse Inhibition / drug effects
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism


  • Dronabinol
  • Dopamine