Cannabis use and memory brain function in adolescent boys: a cross-sectional multicenter functional magnetic resonance imaging
Objective: Early-onset cannabis use has been associated with later use/abuse, mental health problems (psychosis, depression), and abnormal development of cognition and brain function. During adolescence, ongoing neurodevelopmental maturation and experience shape the neural circuitry underlying complex cognitive functions such as memory and executive control. Prefrontal and temporal regions are critically involved in these functions. Maturational processes leave these brain areas prone to the potentially harmful effects of cannabis use. Method: We performed a two-site (United States and the Netherlands; pooled data) functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study with a cross-sectional design, investigating the effects of adolescent cannabis use on working memory (WM) and associative memory (AM) brain function in 21 abstinent but frequent cannabis–using boys (13–19) years of age and compared them with 24 nonusing peers. Brain activity during WM was assessed before and after rule-based learning (automatization). AM was assessed using a pictorial hippocampal-dependent memory task. Results: Cannabis users performed normally on both memory tasks. During WM assessment, cannabis users showed excessive activity in prefrontal regions when a task was novel, whereas automatization of the task reduced activity to the same level in users and controls. No effect of cannabis use on AM-related brain function was found. Conclusions: In adolescent cannabis users, the WM system was overactive during a novel task, suggesting functional compensation. Inefficient WM recruitment was not related to a failure in automatization but became evident when processing continuously changing information. The results seem to confirm the vulnerability of still developing frontal lobe functioning for early-onset cannabis use.