Verbal Memory Performance and Reduced Cortical Thickness of Brain Regions Along the Uncinate Fasciculus in Young Adult Cannabis Users

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Introduction: Memory impairment is one of the most commonly reported effects of cannabis use, especially among those who initiate use earlier, perhaps due to the effects of delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol on cannabinoid (CB1) receptors in the brain. Studies have increasingly investigated whether cannabis use is associated with impairments in verbal memory, and with alterations in brain structures underlying verbal memory. The uncinate fasciculus (UF), a long-range white matter tract, connects regions with densely localized CB1 receptors that are important in verbal memory. This study investigated the impact of cannabis use on UF structures and its association with memory performance in young adult cannabis users (CU) and non-using controls (CON). Materials and Methods: Nineteen CU and 22 CON completed a verbal memory task and a neuroimaging protocol, in which diffusion tensor imaging and structural scans were collected. We compared memory performance, diffusion and tractography measures of the UF, and cortical thickness of regions connected by the UF, between CU and CON. In regions showing a significant group effect, we also examined associations between verbal memory performance, cortical thickness, and age of onset of cannabis use. Results: Compared to non-users, CU had worse memory performance, decreased fiber bundle length in the UF, and decreased cortical thickness of brain regions along the UF such as the entorhinal cortex and fusiform gyrus. Verbal memory performance was significantly associated with age of onset of cannabis use, indicating that those who initiated cannabis use at an earlier age performed worse. Cortical thickness of the entorhinal cortex was significantly correlated with age of first use and memory performance. Conclusion: This study provides evidence that cannabis use, especially when initiated at a young age, may be associated with worse verbal memory and altered neural development along the UF. Reductions in cortical thickness in regions implicated in memory processes may underlie weaknesses in verbal memory performance.