Light Cannabis Use and the Adolescent Brain: An 8-years Longitudinal Assessment of Mental Health, Cognition, and Reward Processing

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2024 Mar 26. doi: 10.1007/s00213-024-06575-z. Online ahead of print.


Rationale: For decades, cannabis has been the most widely used illicit substance in the world, particularly among youth. Research suggests that mental health problems associated with cannabis use may result from its effect on reward brain circuit, emotional processes, and cognition. However, findings are mostly derived from correlational studies and inconsistent, particularly in adolescents.

Objectives and methods: Using data from the IMAGEN study, participants (non-users, persistent users, abstinent users) were classified according to their cannabis use at 19 and 22 years-old. All participants were cannabis-naïve at baseline (14 years-old). Psychopathological symptoms, cognitive performance, and brain activity while performing a Monetary Incentive Delay task were used as predictors of substance use and to analyze group differences over time.

Results: Higher scores on conduct problems and lower on peer problems at 14 years-old (n = 318) predicted a greater likelihood of transitioning to cannabis use within 5 years. At 19 years of age, individuals who consistently engaged in low-frequency (i.e., light) cannabis use (n = 57) exhibited greater conduct problems and hyperactivity/inattention symptoms compared to non-users (n = 52) but did not differ in emotional symptoms, cognitive functioning, or brain activity during the MID task. At 22 years, those who used cannabis at both 19 and 22 years-old n = 17), but not individuals that had been abstinent for ≥ 1 month (n = 19), reported higher conduct problems than non-users (n = 17).

Conclusions: Impairments in reward-related brain activity and cognitive functioning do not appear to precede or succeed cannabis use (i.e., weekly, or monthly use). Cannabis-naïve adolescents with conduct problems and more socially engaged with their peers may be at a greater risk for lighter yet persistent cannabis use in the future.

Keywords: Adolescents; Cannabis; Cognition; Longitudinal; Psychopathology; Reward Processing; fMRI.