Unveiling the Link Between Adolescent Cannabis Use, Genetic Vulnerability, and Microglial Function: Implications for Psychiatric Disorders and Cognitive Abnormalities


Adolescent cannabis use has been a subject of increasing concern due to its potential long-term effects on mental health. Research has shown that this habit is associated with an elevated risk for psychiatric disorders and cognitive abnormalities.

These adverse effects are primarily attributed to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive compound in cannabis. THC’s impact on brain function is well-documented, and it is known to exert its influence by binding to the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (Cnr1), primarily located on presynaptic terminals. Recent studies, however, have highlighted the importance of Cnr1 expressed on astrocytes and microglia in mediating THC-induced cognitive deficits.

Furthermore, the contribution of cannabis use to the risk of psychiatric disorders appears to be influenced by genetic predisposition to psychosis, within the context of gene-environment interaction (GxE). An emerging area of interest is the role of genetic variations, such as copy number variations (CNVs), in this interaction.

The ~600-kb duplication on chromosome 16p11.2 (16p11dup) is a CNV that has been consistently linked to an increased risk of cognitive defects seen in various psychiatric disorders.

In this article, we delve into the uncharted territory of microglial function in the context of adolescent THC exposure and its potential interactions with genetic susceptibility, focusing on the 16p11dup CNV. We aim to explore how adolescent THC exposure affects microglial function via cannabinoid receptors and whether the presence of the 16p11dup CNV exacerbates these effects.

Ultimately, our goal is to understand how these interactions impact prefrontal cortex (PFC) function and lead to impairments in social and cognitive functions in adulthood.

The Role of THC and Cannabinoid Receptors

THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, exerts its effects by binding to the cannabinoid receptor type 1 (Cnr1). This receptor is primarily located on presynaptic terminals, where it modulates cognitive function. It is widely accepted that THC’s impact on cognition is mediated through the endocannabinoid system, which is composed of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and enzymes involved in endocannabinoid metabolism.

However, recent research has uncovered the presence of Cnr1 on astrocytes and microglia in the brain. Astrocytes and microglia are non-neuronal cells that play crucial roles in brain development, synaptic pruning, and immune responses. Their role in THC-induced cognitive deficits is a relatively new area of investigation.

Microglia and Their Emerging Role

Microglia, a type of glial cell, have recently gained significant attention for their involvement in various psychiatric disorders of neurodevelopmental origin. These cells are known to participate in synaptic pruning during brain maturation and have roles in controlling social and cognitive functions. The pathological implications of microglia in psychiatric disorders emphasize the importance of understanding their involvement in THC-induced cognitive deficits.

The 16p11dup CNV and Genetic Vulnerability

The 16p11dup CNV has been identified as a genetic risk factor for cognitive defects observed in various psychiatric disorders. Preclinical studies in a mouse model carrying this CNV have revealed behavioral abnormalities in cognitive domains, alterations in the dendritic structure of pyramidal neurons, and disruptions in GABAergic synapses in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is a critical brain region involved in social and cognitive functions.

Gene-environment interaction (GxE) in the 16p11dup model has yet to be explored, leaving open questions about how genetic vulnerability may interact with environmental factors, such as THC exposure, to influence cognitive outcomes.

Microglia, THC Exposure, and 16p11dup: Bridging the Gap

This study aims to bridge the gap by investigating the role of microglia in the adverse effects of adolescent THC exposure on brain maturation and cognitive functions. Several key questions guide our research:

  • How does adolescent THC exposure affect microglial function, and to what extent is this mediated by cannabinoid receptors, including Cnr1?
  • Does the presence of the 16p11dup CNV exacerbate the effects of THC exposure on microglia?
  • How do alterations in microglial function impact PFC structure and function?
  • What are the consequences of these interactions for social and cognitive function in adulthood?

Understanding the complex interplay between THC exposure, genetic vulnerability, and microglial function has the potential to shed light on the mechanisms underlying the long-term consequences of adolescent cannabis use. It may provide insights into novel therapeutic targets and preventive strategies for mitigating the risk of psychiatric disorders and cognitive abnormalities associated with cannabis use during adolescence.


In this study, we have unveiled a novel and complex interplay between adolescent THC exposure, the 16p11dup genetic variation, and microglial function. Our findings shed light on the intricate mechanisms underlying the long-term consequences of adolescent cannabis use, which can manifest as psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairments in adulthood. In the following discussion, we will dissect the key findings of our research and their broader implications for understanding the link between cannabis use, genetic vulnerability, and microglial function.

Microglial Apoptosis in the mPFC

Our study demonstrates that adolescent THC exposure, in conjunction with the presence of the 16p11dup CNV, results in Cnr1-mediated microglial apoptosis within the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). This finding is particularly significant as it suggests that microglia, a crucial component of the brain’s immune system, play a central role in the adverse cognitive effects of adolescent cannabis use. Microglia are known to participate in synaptic pruning and remodeling during adolescence, which is essential for the maturation of neuronal circuits in the brain, ultimately contributing to higher cognitive function.

Sex-Dependent Microglial Phenotypes

It is noteworthy that our results reveal a sex-dependent response to adolescent THC exposure, as microglial apoptosis was observed in male mice but not in female mice. This finding underscores the complexity of the interaction between THC exposure and microglial function, suggesting that factors such as THC dosage, duration of exposure, abstinence periods, and sex can modulate the response of microglia to cannabis.

Additionally, we observed a shift in microglial phenotype from ramified to amoeboid-like following THC treatment. This transition may be indicative of changes in microglial activation states, and future research should explore the mechanistic links between apoptotic and inflammatory signaling pathways in microglia.

The Role of Genetic Variability

Our research highlights the importance of genetic factors in modulating the effects of THC exposure. Specifically, the 16p11dup CNV was found to enhance THC-induced microglial apoptosis, whereas the 22q11 deletion did not exhibit the same effect. This suggests that specific genetic risks underlie the vulnerability of microglia to the effects of cannabis exposure. Interestingly, several genes within the 16p11dup risk loci have been implicated in apoptotic cell death and p53 signaling pathways, further supporting the notion that genetic factors can contribute to microglial susceptibility to apoptosis. However, it is important to note that not all individuals with CNVs develop cognitive impairments, suggesting a role for gene-environment interactions in shaping these outcomes.

Implications for Psychiatric Disorders and Cognitive Function

The impact of THC on the brain’s prefrontal cortex is particularly relevant given its involvement in psychiatric disorders of neurodevelopmental origin, such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Social cognitive impairments, often seen in individuals with these conditions, have been linked to aberrant prefrontal structure and function.

Our study underscores the significance of understanding the role of specific neuronal subtypes, such as PT neurons in the mPFC, in regulating social memory. Microglia are known to be involved in the maturation processes of these neurons, making them a key player in the regulation of social memory.

Future Directions

While our research has uncovered critical insights into the complex interplay between adolescent THC exposure, genetic variability, and microglial function, many questions remain. It is crucial to explore the exact mechanisms by which specific genes within the 16p11dup risk loci contribute to microglial apoptosis in response to THC exposure. Additionally, investigating the precise roles of microglial Cnr1 expression, especially in the context of various Cre driver lines targeting microglia, will provide a more comprehensive understanding of their contribution to THC-induced effects.

Translational Implications

As the popularity of cannabis for medical and recreational use continues to grow, the need to comprehend the adverse effects of cannabis becomes more pressing. Our study has far-reaching implications for clinical research, providing a mechanistic understanding of how cannabis exposure may contribute to psychopathology in individuals with a genetic predisposition to psychiatric disorders. By unraveling the intricate web of gene-environment interactions, we may pave the way for targeted interventions and preventative strategies to protect the mental health and cognitive function of young individuals.

In conclusion, our research underscores the importance of further investigating the role of microglia in mediating gene-environment interactions in the context of adolescent cannabis exposure. These findings provide a valuable foundation for future research and hold promise for advancing our understanding of the complex mechanisms underlying the impact of cannabis on cognitive impairments and psychiatric disorders.

reference link : https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-42276-5


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