THC Exposure is Reflected in the Microstructure of the Cerebral Cortex and Amygdala of Young Adults


The endocannabinoid system serves a critical role in homeostatic regulation through its influence on processes underlying appetite, pain, reward, and stress, and cannabis has long been used for the related modulatory effects it provides through tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). We investigated how THC exposure relates to tissue microstructure of the cerebral cortex and subcortical nuclei using computational modeling of diffusion magnetic resonance imaging data in a large cohort of young adults from the Human Connectome Project. We report strong associations between biospecimen-defined THC exposure and microstructure parameters in discrete gray matter brain areas, including frontoinsular cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the lateral amygdala subfields, with independent effects in behavioral measures of memory performance, negative intrusive thinking, and paternal substance abuse. These results shed new light on the relationship between THC exposure and microstructure variation in brain areas related to salience processing, emotion regulation, and decision making. The absence of effects in some other cannabinoid-receptor-rich brain areas prompts the consideration of cellular and molecular mechanisms that we discuss. Further studies are needed to characterize the nature of these effects across the lifespan and to investigate the mechanistic neurobiological factors connecting THC exposure and microstructural parameters.

Cerebral Cortex