Decreased dopamine brain reactivity in marijuana abusers is associated with negative emotionality and addiction severity

Nora D. Volkow, Gene Jack Wang, Frank Telang, Joanna S. Fowler, David Alexoff, Jean Logan, Millard Jayne, Christopher Wong, Dardo Tomasi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

140 Scopus citations


Moves to legalize marijuana highlight the urgency to investigate effects of chronic marijuana in the human brain. Here, we challenged 48 participants (24 controls and 24 marijuana abusers) with methylphenidate (MP), a drug that elevates extracellular dopamine (DA) as a surrogate for probing the reactivity of the brain to DA stimulation. We compared the subjective, cardiovascular, and brain DA responses (measured with PET and [11C]raclopride) to MP between controls and marijuana abusers. Although baseline (placebo) measures of striatal DA D2 receptor availability did not differ between groups, the marijuana abusers showed markedly blunted responses when challenged with MP. Specifically, compared with controls, marijuana abusers had significantly attenuated behavioral ("self-reports" for high, drug effects, anxiety, and restlessness), cardiovascular (pulse rate and diastolic blood pressure), and brain DA [reduced decreases in distribution volumes (DVs) of [ 11C]raclopride, although normal reductions in striatal nondisplaceable binding potential (BPND)] responses to MP. In ventral striatum (key brain reward region),MP-induced reductions in DVs and BP ND (reflecting DA increases) were inversely correlated with scores of negative emotionality, which were significantly higher for marijuana abusers than controls. In marijuana abusers, DA responses in ventral striatum were also inversely correlated with addiction severity and craving. The attenuated responses to MP, including reduced decreases in striatal DVs, are consistent with decreased brain reactivity to the DA stimulation in marijuana abusers that might contribute to their negative emotionality (increased stress reactivity and irritability) and addictive behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E3149-E3156
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
StatePublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Amotivation
  • Brain imaging
  • Cannabinoid 1 receptors
  • Midbrain
  • Nucleus accumbens


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