The relationship between cannabis use and the onset of psychosis is well established. Aberrant salience processing is widely thought to underpin many of these symptoms. Literature explicitly investigating the relationship between aberrant salience processing and cannabis use is scarce; with those few studies finding that acute tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) administration (the main psychoactive component of cannabis) can result in abnormal salience processing in healthy cohorts, mirroring that observed in psychosis. Nevertheless, the extent of and mechanisms through which cannabis has a modulatory effect on aberrant salience, following both acute and chronic use, remain unclear.
Here, we systematically review recent findings on the effects of cannabis use – either through acute THC administration or in chronic users – on brain regions associated with salience processing (through functional MRI data); and performance in cognitive tasks that could be used as either direct or indirect measures of salience processing. We identified 13 studies either directly or indirectly exploring salience processing. Three types of salience were identified and discussed – incentive/motivational, emotional/affective, and attentional salience.
The results demonstrated an impairment of immediate salience processing, following acute THC administration. Amongst the long-term cannabis users, normal salience performance appeared to be underpinned by abnormal neural processes.
Overall, the lack of research specifically exploring the effects of cannabis use on salience processing, weaken any conclusions drawn. Additional research explicitly focussed on salience processing and cannabis use is required to advance our understanding of the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the association between cannabis use and development of psychosis.