Heavy cannabis use associated with reduced dopamine release in brain, similar to other addictions

April 14, 2016
cannabis
Cannabis indica. Credit: Wikipedia

In a recent study, researchers found evidence of a compromised dopamine system in heavy users of marijuana. Lower dopamine release was found in the striatum - a region of the brain that is involved in working memory, impulsive behavior, and attention. Previous studies have shown that addiction to other drugs of abuse, such as cocaine and heroin, have similar effects on dopamine release, but such evidence for cannabis was missing until now.

"In light of the more widespread acceptance and use of marijuana, especially by young people, we believe it is important to look more closely at the potentially addictive effects of cannabis on key regions of the brain," said Anissa Abi-Dargham, MD, professor of psychiatry (in radiology) at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and a lead author of the paper.

The study included 11 adults between the ages of 21 and 40 who were severely dependent on cannabis and 12 matched healthy controls. On average, the cannabis group started using at age 16, became dependent on cannabis by age 20, and have been dependent for the past 7 years. In the month prior to the study, nearly all users in this study smoked marijuana daily.

Using (PET) to track a radiolabelled molecule that binds to dopamine receptors in the brain, the scientists measured in the and its subregions, as well as in several brain regions outside the striatum, including the thalamus, midbrain, and globus pallidus. The cannabis users in this study stayed in the hospital for a week of abstinence to ensure that the PET scans were not measuring the acute effects of the drug. Participants were scanned before and after being given oral amphetamine to elicit dopamine release. The percent change in the binding of the radiotracer was taken as an indicator of capacity for dopamine release.

Compared with the controls, the had significantly lower dopamine release in the striatum, including subregions involved in associative and sensorimotor learning, and in the globus pallidus.

The investigators also explored the relationship between dopamine release in a key area of the striatum and cognitive performance on learning and working memory tasks. Although there was no difference between groups in task performance, in all participants lower dopamine release was associated with worse performance on both tasks.

"We don't know whether decreased dopamine was a preexisting condition or the result of heavy cannabis use," said Dr. Abi-Dargham. "But the bottom line is that long-term, heavy cannabis use may impair the dopaminergic system, which could have a variety of negative effects on learning and behavior."

Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, Chair of Psychiatry at CUMC and past president of the American Psychiatric Association, noted that "these findings add to the growing body of research demonstrating the potentially adverse effects of , particularly in youth, at the same time that government policies and laws are increasing access and use."

Explore further: Long-term cannabis use may blunt the brain's motivation system

Related Stories

Long-term cannabis use may blunt the brain's motivation system

July 1, 2013
Long-term cannabis users tend to produce less dopamine, a chemical in the brain linked to motivation, a study has found.

Researchers discover genes that influence cannabis use

April 1, 2016
Researchers from the AMC, VU University Amsterdam and Radboud University have discovered four genes that play a role in the use of cannabis. An article about their findings, co-written by colleagues from the USA and Europe, ...

Genome-wide association study of cannabis

March 30, 2016
Cannabis dependence is a serious problem worldwide and it is of growing importance in the United States as marijuana becomes increasingly legal.

Cannabis use leaves society searching for answers

March 17, 2016
A University of Queensland researcher is a major contributor to a new World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the adverse health effects of nonmedical cannabis use.

Study points to cannabis' effect on emotion processing

February 29, 2016
The complex biochemistry of cannabis and how it affects the brain is only beginning to be understood. Lucy Troup, assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University, has set out to answer specifically how, if ...

Heavy, persistent pot use linked to economic and social problems at midlife

March 23, 2016
A research study that followed children from birth up to age 38 has found that people who smoked cannabis four or more days of the week over many years ended up in a lower social class than their parents, with lower-paying, ...

Recommended for you

Gene associated with schizophrenia risk regulates neurodevelopment

September 25, 2017
A gene associated with the risk of schizophrenia regulates critical components of early brain development, according to a new study led by researchers from Penn State University. The gene is involved in the translation of ...

For a better 'I,' there needs to be a supportive 'we'

September 25, 2017
If you're one of those lucky individuals with high motivation and who actively pursues personal growth goals, thank your family and friends who support you.

Child abuse affects brain wiring

September 25, 2017
Researchers from the McGill Group for Suicide Studies, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University's Department of Psychiatry, have just published research in the American Journal of Psychiatry ...

Babies can learn that hard work pays off

September 21, 2017
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. A new study from MIT reveals that babies as young as 15 months can learn to follow this advice. The researchers found that babies who watched an adult struggle at two different ...

Study links brain inflammation to suicidal thinking in depression

September 21, 2017
Patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) have increased brain levels of a marker of microglial activation, a sign of inflammation, according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry by researchers at the University of ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

louierg
not rated yet Apr 15, 2016
As a 20 yr old college student pumping gas at a "gas station", my stoned coworker snipped to me that he could do anything stoned that he could do straight. The humorous part of out conversation was immediately after his statement the fuel tank was overfilled and spilling onto the car, ground and his foot. I then brought it to his attention that the fuel was spilling. Quit the stuff long ago. It is my belief that marijuana will be the destruction of many. It will be the panacea for those unable to get a job due to jobs shortages as the population grows and automation of work production improves. That my friends is the best use of this drug. Sedate and satisfy the population without a universal purpose. What I say is out there, but so was going to the moon at one time as cell phones...........

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.