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Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005 Apr;23(1):107-18.

Neuroimaging of marijuana smokers during inhibitory processing: a pilot investigation.

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  • 1Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory, Brain Imaging Center, McLean Hospital, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Belmont, MA 02478, USA. gryber@mclean.harvard.edu


Neuropsychological investigations of substance abusers have reported impairments on tasks mediated by the frontal executive system, including functions associated with behavioral inhibition and decision making. The higher order or executive components which are involved in decision making include selective attention and short term storage of information, inhibition of response to irrelevant information, initiation of response to relevant information, self-monitoring of performance, and changing internal and external contingencies in order to "stay the course" towards the ultimate goal. Given the hypothesized role of frontal systems in decision making and the previous evidence that executive dysfunctions and structural brain changes exist in subjects who use illicit drugs, we applied fMRI and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) techniques in a pilot investigation of heavy cannabis smokers and matched control subjects while performing a modification of the classic Stroop task. Marijuana smokers demonstrated significantly lower anterior cingulate activity in focal areas of the anterior cingulate cortex and higher midcingulate activity relative to controls, although both groups were able to perform the task within normal limits. Normal controls also demonstrated increased activity within the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) during the interference condition, while marijuana smokers demonstrated a more diffuse, bilateral pattern of DLPFC activation. Similarly, although both groups performed the task well, marijuana smokers made more errors of commission than controls during the interference condition, which were associated with different brain regions than control subjects. These findings suggest that marijuana smokers exhibit different patterns of BOLD response and error response during the Stroop interference condition compared to normal controls despite similar task performance. Furthermore, DTI measures in frontal regions, which include the genu and splenium of the corpus callosum and bilateral anterior cingulate white matter regions, showed no between group differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), a measure of directional coherence within white matter fiber tracts, but a notable increase in trace, a measure of overall isotropic diffusivity in marijuana smokers compared to controls. Overall, results from the present study indicate significant differences in the magnitude and pattern of signal intensity change within the anterior cingulate and the DLPFC during the Stroop interference subtest in chronic marijuana smokers compared to normal controls. Furthermore, although chronic marijuana smokers were able to perform the task reasonably well, the functional activation findings suggest they utilize different cortical processes from the control subjects in order to do so. Findings from this study are consistent with the notion that substance abusers demonstrate evidence of altered frontal neural function during the performance of tasks that involve inhibition and performance monitoring, which may affect the ability to make decisions.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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