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Medial temporal structures and memory functions in adolescents with heavy cannabis use

Converging lines of evidence suggest an adverse effect of heavy cannabis use on adolescent brain development, particularly on the hippocampus. In this preliminary study, we compared hippocampal morphology in 14 “treatment-seeking” adolescents (aged 18–20) with a history of prior heavy cannabis use (5.8 joints/day) after an average of 6.7 months of drug abstinence, and 14 demographically matched normal controls. Participants underwent a high-resolution 3D MRI as well as cognitive testing including the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT). Heavy-cannabis users showed significantly smaller volumes of the right (p < 0.04) and left (p < 0.02) hippocampus, but no significant differences in the amygdala region compared to controls. In controls, larger hippocampus volumes were observed to be significantly correlated with higher CVLT verbal learning and memory scores, but these relationships were not observed in cannabis users. In cannabis users, a smaller right hippocampus volume was correlated with a higher amount of cannabis use (r = −0.57, p < 0.03). These data support a hypothesis that heavy cannabis use may have an adverse effect on hippocampus development. These findings, after an average 6.7 month of supervised abstinence, lend support to a theory that cannabis use may impart long-term structural and functional damage. Alternatively, the observed hippocampal volumetric abnormalities may represent a risk factor for cannabis dependence. These data have potential significance for understanding the observed relationship between early cannabis exposure during adolescence and subsequent development of adult psychopathology reported in the literature for schizophrenia and related psychotic disorders.

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