Background: In recent years, growing concerns about the effects of cannabis use on mental health have renewed interest in cannabis research. In particular, there has been a marked increase in the number of neuroimaging studies of the effects of cannabinoids. We conducted a systematic review to assess the impact of acute cannabis exposure on brain function in humans and in experimental animals.
Methods: Papers published until June 2012 were included from EMBASE, Medline, PubMed and LILACS databases following a comprehensive search strategy and pre-determined set of criteria for article selection. Only pharmacological challenge studies involving the acute experimental administration of cannabinoids in occasional or naïve cannabis users, and naïve animals were considered.
Results: Two hundred and twenty-four studies were identified, of which 45 met our inclusion criteria. Twenty-four studies were in humans and 21 in animals. Most comprised studies of the acute effects of cannabinoids on brain functioning in the context of either resting state activity or activation during cognitive paradigms. In general, THC and CBD had opposite neurophysiological effects. There were also a smaller number of neurochemical imaging studies: overall, these did not support a central role for increased dopaminergic activity in THC-induced psychosis. There was a considerable degree of methodological heterogeneity in the imaging literature reviewed.
Conclusion: Functional neuroimaging studies have provided extensive evidence for the acute modulation of brain function by cannabinoids, but further studies are needed in order to understand the neural mechanisms underlying these effects. Future studies should also consider the need for more standardised methodology and the replication of findings.