Substance use and spine density: a systematic review and meta-analysis of preclinical studies

Mol Psychiatry. 2024 Apr 2. doi: 10.1038/s41380-024-02519-3. Online ahead of print.


The elucidation of synaptic density changes provides valuable insights into the underlying brain mechanisms of substance use. In preclinical studies, synaptic density markers, like spine density, are altered by substances of abuse (e.g., alcohol, amphetamine, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, nicotine). These changes could be linked to phenomena including behavioral sensitization and drug self-administration in rodents. However, studies have produced heterogeneous results for spine density across substances and brain regions. Identifying patterns will inform translational studies given tools that now exist to measure in vivo synaptic density in humans. We performed a meta-analysis of preclinical studies to identify consistent findings across studies. PubMed, ScienceDirect, Scopus, and EBSCO were searched between September 2022 and September 2023, based on a protocol (PROSPERO: CRD42022354006). We screened 6083 publications and included 70 for meta-analysis. The meta-analysis revealed drug-specific patterns in spine density changes. Hippocampal spine density increased after amphetamine. Amphetamine, cocaine, and nicotine increased spine density in the nucleus accumbens. Alcohol and amphetamine increased, and cannabis reduced, spine density in the prefrontal cortex. There was no convergence of findings for morphine’s effects. The effects of cocaine on the prefrontal cortex presented contrasting results compared to human studies, warranting further investigation. Publication bias was small for alcohol or morphine and substantial for the other substances. Heterogeneity was moderate-to-high across all substances. Nonetheless, these findings inform current translational efforts examining spine density in humans with substance use disorders.

PMID:38561468 | DOI:10.1038/s41380-024-02519-3