Relating Neurochemical Changes Associated with THC Use to Learning and Memory in Adolescent Rats
Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug. Adolescents may be especially vulnerable to the effects of cannabis, and alarmingly, adolescence is also a period of heavy cannabis use. However, few studies have investigated the cognitive effects of cannabis use in adolescents specifically. Furthermore, the neurochemical correlates of cognitive impairment associated with cannabis use at any age have received very little experimental attention. This research project sought to address these shortcomings in the literature using THC, the major psychoactive component of cannabis, and a rat model of adolescence. The rate of learning was slower in THC-treated animals, and this was attributable to deficits in the cognitive function of 'chunking', a process by which the information capacity of short-term memory is enlarged. Impairment of chunking by cannabinoids has not been previously reported. Behavioural impairment by THC was associated with impaired hippocampal plasticity, including changes in synaptic activity and architecture, as well as changes in neurogenesis. The attenuation of structural and functional plasticity in the hippocampus in response to training in a learning task was more pronounced than the subtle effects of THC-treatment on the survival and early development of newborn neurons. Importantly, no effects of THC were seen in animals not trained in the maze. Thus, plasticity is more sensitive to the effects of THC during times of learning, and this greater sensitivity likely accounts for the behavioural impairment associated with cannabis use. The data presented in this thesis add significantly to the existing literature by identifying novel behavioural and neurochemical processes by which cannabis use may impair learning and memory. Whether these impairments represent a greater sensitivity of adolescents to THC remains to be determined.