Structural MRI findings in long-term cannabis users: what do we know?
In animal studies, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has been found to affect brain morphology, particularly within areas rich in cannabinoid receptors (e.g., hippocampus, cerebral cortex). While cannabis remains the most widely used illicit drug worldwide, there has been limited work investigating its effects on human brain tissue. In this paper, we conducted a systematic review of existing structural magnetic resonance imaging studies to examine whether cannabis use is associated with significant changes in brain anatomy. We identified only 13 structural neuroimaging studies, which were diverse in terms of sample characteristics (e.g., age of participants, duration and frequency of use) and methodology (e.g., image analysis). No study found global structural changes in cannabis users, although six studies reported regional alterations. While changes in the hippocampus and parahippocampus were frequently identified, the findings were inconsistent across studies. The available literature also provides some evidence that regional structural changes are associated with cannabis use patterns (particularly cumulative dosage and frequency of use), as well as measures of psychopathology (e.g., measures of depressive and psychotic symptoms). Together, these structural imaging findings suggest that THC exposure does affect brain morphology, especially in medial–temporal regions. Given the small literature available and the limitations of studies to date, further research is clearly required, particularly given the prevalence of cannabis use worldwide.
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