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Neuroimaging of the dopamine/reward system in adolescent drug use

  • Monique Ernst (a1) and Monica Luciana (a2)

Adolescence is characterized by heightened risk-taking, including substance misuse. These behavioral patterns are influenced by ontogenic changes in neurotransmitter systems, particularly the dopamine system, which is fundamentally involved in the neural coding of reward and motivated approach behavior. During adolescence, this system evidences a peak in activity. At the same time, the dopamine (DA) system is neuroplastically altered by substance abuse, impacting subsequent function. Here, we describe properties of the dopamine system that change with typical adolescent development and that are altered with substance abuse. Much of this work has been gleaned from animal models due to limitations in measuring dopamine in pediatric samples. Structural and functional neuroimaging techniques have been used to examine structures that are heavily DA-innervated; they measure morphological and functional changes with age and with drug exposure. Presenting marijuana abuse as an exemplar, we consider recent findings that support an adolescent peak in DA-driven reward-seeking behavior and related deviations in motivational systems that are associated with marijuana abuse/dependence. Clinicians are advised that (1) chronic adolescent marijuana use may lead to deficiencies in incentive motivation, (2) that this state is due to marijuana’s interactions with the developing DA system, and (3) that treatment strategies should be directed to remediating resultant deficiencies in goal-directed activity.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Monique Ernst, MD, PhD, Head of Neurodevelopment of Reward Systems, Section on Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety (NFA), Emotional Development and Affective Neuroscience Branch (EDAN), National Institute of Mental Health/NIH, 15K North Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA. (Email:
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