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Neurocognitive Correlates of Adolescent Cannabis Use: an Overview of Neural Activation Patterns in Task-Based Functional MRI Studies


Adolescence is dynamic and comprises physiological, psychological, and neurocognitive changes. Notably, many developmentally associated neurobiological changes (e.g., synaptic pruning, myelination) coincide with peak substances use prevalence rates, particularly for cannabis use. Cannabis remains the most commonly used illicit drug among adolescents with 23.9% reporting cannabis use in the last year (Johnston et al., 2019). Adolescents who engage in cannabis use often show poorer neurocognitive performance and alterations in structural and functional brain development as compared to their non-using peers (Jacobus & Tapert, 2014). Over the past several decades, the cognitive domains most consistently associated with cannabis use among adolescents are learning and memory and several facets of executive functioning (e.g., inhibitory control, decision-making). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive method for probing the neural substrates underlying possible cannabis-related changes in cognition. This brief review aims to synthesize recent findings on the relationship between adolescent (≤25 years old) cannabis use and neural response during task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Findings thus far suggest aberrant, often hyperactive, response to task-based stimuli in youth cannabis users. When considering the future directions of fMRI research with cannabis-using youth, review of existing studies also highlights the need for more prospective research with diverse samples.

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