Cannabis use disorder (CUD) occurs frequently in patients with schizophrenia (SCZ) and worsens the course of this severe psychiatric disorder. Treatments available for these "dual diagnosis" patients are inadequate. New treatments to limit cannabis use in patients with schizophrenia are sorely needed. We have proposed that a dysregulated mesocorticolimbic "brain reward circuit" (BRC) in patients with SCZ underpins their cannabis use, and that cannabis use ameliorates this dysregulated circuitry. Studying the neural effects of a monetary probe linked to fMRI, as well as a behavioral measure of reward responsiveness, we and others have demonstrated that patients with SCZ do indeed have a deficit within their BRC and decreased reward responsiveness, as compared to normal subjects. Moreover, pilot data from our ARRA- funded grant involving resting state functional connectivity (RSC) suggest that such patients also have decreased intrinsic inter-regional synchronization within the BRC. Lastly, our pilot imaging data further indicate that both cannabis, as well as the cannabinoid agonist dronabinol, decrease the dysfunctional BRC deficit, as assessed by a monetary probe linked to fMRI and by resting state functional connectivity. In this proposal, we seek to confirm and expand upon our ARRA-funded investigation.
The first aim i s to assess the status of the BRC in patients with SCZ and co-occurring CUD (SCZ-CUD), as well as in those with SCZ (without CUD) and CUD (without SCZ): (1a) To confirm that (i) task-related fMRI activity linked to a monetary brain reward probe;(ii) inter-regional resting state functional connectivity;and (iii) a behavioral measure of reward responsiveness, will be decreased in patients with SCZ-CUD as compared to healthy controls;and (1b) to explore these measures in those with SCZ (without CUD) and with CUD (without SCZ).
The second aim will assess the effect of cannabis and dronabinol on BRC in patients with SCZ- CUD and in those with CUD (without SCZ): (2a) To confirm whether dysfunctional (i) task-related fMRI activity linked to a monetary brain reward probe, and (ii) inter-regional resting state functional connectivity will be ameliorated;and (2b) to explore whether a behavioral measure of reward responsiveness will be improved in patients with SCZ-CUD, and (2c) to explore these measures in those with CUD (without SCZ), and to compare the results to those from (2a).
The third aim will assess other effects of dronabinol in patients with SCZ-CUD -- on craving, mood, negative symptoms, psychotic symptoms and cognition. By probing BRC dysregulation and testing the effects of smoked cannabis on this dysregulation, this study will help further elucidate whether "self-medication" of a BRC deficit may be an important component of cannabis use in patients with SCZ. Moreover, by probing the physiological and behavioral effects of dronabinol, this research can lead to development of therapeutic agents, potentially including dronabinol, other cannabinoids or non-cannabinoid agents that may ameliorate a BRC deficiency and thus limit cannabis use in these patients.

Public Health Relevance

Cannabis use disorder, which is common in patients with schizophrenia, worsens the course of this severe psychiatric disorder. This study seeks to establish that cannabis is used for self- medication by these patients because it ameliorates a deficit in their brain circuitry, and further, that dronabinol, an orally administered drug approve for certain medical conditions, can also ameliorate this deficit. If dronabinol can be shown to safely ameliorate the brain reward circuit deficit in these patients, it should be tested as a potential treatment to limit cannabis use, and thereby reduce adverse outcomes, in patients with schizophrenia.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Neural Basis of Psychopathology, Addictions and Sleep Disorders Study Section (NPAS)
Program Officer
Lin, Yu
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Dartmouth College
Schools of Medicine
United States
Zip Code