, Volume 231, Issue 7, pp 1397-1407
Date: 02 Nov 2013

Neural responses to subliminally presented cannabis and other emotionally evocative cues in cannabis-dependent individuals

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Addiction theories posit that drug-related cues maintain and contribute to drug use and relapse. Indeed, our recent study in cocaine-dependent patients demonstrated that subliminally presented cocaine-related stimuli activate reward neurocircuitry without being consciously perceived. Activation of reward neurocircuitry may provoke craving and perhaps prime an individual for subsequent drug-seeking behaviors.


Using an equivalent paradigm, we tested whether cannabis cues activate reward neurocircuitry in treatment-seeking, cannabis-dependent individuals and whether activation was associated with relevant behavioral anchors: baseline cannabis craving (drug-seeking behavior) and duration of use (degree of conditioning).


Twenty treatment-seeking, cannabis-dependent individuals (12 males) underwent event-related blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging during exposure to 33-ms cannabis, sexual, and aversive cues presented in a backward-masking paradigm. Drug use history and cannabis craving were assessed prior to imaging.


Participants showed increased activity to backward-masked cannabis cues in regions supporting reward detection and interoception, including the left anterior insula, left ventral striatum/amygdala, and right ventral striatum. Cannabis cue-related activity in the bilateral insula and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex was positively associated with baseline cannabis craving, and cannabis cue-related activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex was positively correlated with years of cannabis use. Neural responses to backward-masked sexual cues were similar to those observed during cannabis cue exposure, while activation to aversive cues was observed only in the left anterior insula and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex.


These data highlight the sensitivity of the brain to subliminal reward signals and support hypotheses promoting a common pathway of appetitive motivation.