February 25, 2021

Testing The Role Of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol During Adolescence As A Gateway Drug: Behavioural, Brain Imaging And Transcriptomic Studies

Cannabis is widely consumed by adolescents, and is also a potential prior step leading to the use of other drugs later in life (Gateway Hypothesis); however, the evidence for this hypothesis is controversial. This work aimed to increase our understanding of the long-term consequences of adolescent exposure to {Delta}9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and to test the Gateway Hypothesis, experimentally. We exposed rats of both sexes to THC and studied its effects on reward-related processes, brain morphology (MRI), metabolism (1H-MRS), function (PET) and the transcriptomic profiles of the nucleus accumbens (RNASeq). Lastly, we studied cocaine-induced cellular activation (c-Fos) and cocaine addiction-like behaviours. THC exposure increased Pavlovian to instrumental transfer in males, goal-tracking (regardless of the sex) and impulsivity, but did not affect habit formation. Adolescent THC reduced striatal volume (in females), commissural integrity and ventricular volume. Also, there were lower levels of choline compounds in the cortex of THC-exposed rats and cerebellar hypoactivation in THC-females. THC also modified some of the gene expression programs of the nucleus accumbens, which could contribute to the behavioural features observed. Lastly, THC exposure increased cocaine-induced c-Fos levels in cortical and hypothalamic areas and increased the motivation for cocaine, followed by a higher rebound of use in THC-females after reestablishing low-effort conditions. Critically, acquisition of cocaine self-administration, compulsive seeking, intake under extended access or the incubation of seeking were unaltered. These results suggest that adolescent THC exposure alters psychological and brain development and that the Gateway Hypothesis does not entirely pass the test of preclinical enquiry.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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