Adolescent substance use initiation and long-term neurobiological outcomes: insights, challenges and opportunities

Mol Psychiatry. 2024 Feb 26. doi: 10.1038/s41380-024-02471-2. Online ahead of print.


The increased frequency of risk taking behavior combined with marked neuromaturation has positioned adolescence as a focal point of research into the neural causes and consequences of substance use. However, little work has provided a summary of the links between adolescent initiated substance use and longer-term brain outcomes. Here we review studies exploring the long-term effects of adolescent-initiated substance use with structural and microstructural neuroimaging. A quarter of all studies reviewed conducted repeated neuroimaging assessments. Long-term alcohol use, as well as tobacco use were consistently associated with smaller frontal cortices and altered white matter microstructure. This association was mostly observed in the ACC, insula and subcortical regions in alcohol users, and for the OFC in tobacco users. Long-term cannabis use was mostly related to altered frontal cortices and hippocampal volumes. Interestingly, cannabis users scanned more years after use initiation tended to show smaller measures of these regions, whereas those with fewer years since initiation showed larger measures. Long-term stimulant use tended to show a similar trend as cannabis in terms of years since initiation in measures of the putamen, insula and frontal cortex. Long-term opioid use was mostly associated with smaller subcortical and insular volumes. Of note, null findings were reported in all substance use categories, most often in cannabis use studies. In the context of the large variety in study designs, substance use assessment, methods, and sample characteristics, we provide recommendations on how to interpret these findings, and considerations for future studies.

PMID:38409597 | DOI:10.1038/s41380-024-02471-2