Evidence for involvement of the insula in the psychotropic effects of THC in humans: a double-blind, randomized pharmacological MRI study
The main reason for recreational use of cannabis is the 'high', the primary psychotropic effect of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This psychoactive compound of cannabis induces a range of subjective, physical and mental reactions. The effect on heart rate is pronounced and complicates bloodflow-based neuroimaging of psychotropic effects of THC. In this study we investigated the effects of THC on baseline brain perfusion and activity in association with the induction of 'feeling high'. Twenty-three subjects participated in a pharmacological MRI study, where we applied arterial spin labelling (ASL) to measure perfusion, and resting-state functional MRI to assess blood oxygen level-dependent signal fluctuation as a measure of baseline brain activity. Feeling high was assessed with a visual analogue scale and was compared to the imaging measures. THC increased perfusion in the anterior cingulate cortex, superior frontal cortex, and insula, and reduced perfusion in the post-central and occipital gyrus. Baseline brain activity was altered, indicated by increased amplitude of fluctuations in resting-state functional MRI signal after THC administration in the insula, substantia nigra and cerebellum. Perfusion changes in frontal cortex were negatively correlated with ratings of feeling high, suggesting an interaction between cognitive control and subjective effects of THC. In conclusion, an acute THC challenge altered baseline brain perfusion and activity, especially in frontal brain areas involved in cognitive and emotional processes, and the insula, associated with interoceptive awareness. These changes may represent the THC-induced neurophysiological correlates of feeling high. The alterations in baseline brain perfusion and activity also have relevance for studies on task-related effects of THC on brain function.
van Hell, H. H., Bossong, M. G., Jager, G., Kristo, G., van Osch, M. J. P., Zelaya, F., Kahn, R. S. & Ramsey, N. F. (2011). Evidence for involvement of the insula in the psychotropic effects of THC in humans: a double-blind, randomized pharmacological MRI study. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, 14 (10), 1377-1388.