Cannabis and illicit drug use during neurodevelopment and the associated structural, functional and cognitive Outcomes: Protocol for a systematic review

Jennifer Debenham, Nicola Newton, Louise Birrell, Murat Yücel, Briana Lees, Katrina Champion

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleOtherpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Background: High rates of cannabis and illicit drug use are experienced by young people during the final stages of neurodevelopment (aged 15-24 years), a period characterized by high neuroplasticity. Frequent drug use during this time may interfere with neurophysiological and neuropsychological development pathways, potentially leading to ongoing unfavorable neuroadaptations. The dose-response relationship between illicit drug use, exposure, and individual neurodevelopmental variation is unknown but salient with global shifts in the legal landscape and increasingly liberal attitudes and perceptions of the harm caused by cannabis and illicit drugs. Objective: This systematic review aims to synthesize longitudinal studies that investigate the effects of illicit drug use on structural, functional, and cognitive brain domains in individuals under the neural age of adulthood (25 years). This protocol outlines prospective methods that will facilitate an exhaustive review of the literature exploring pre- and post-drug use brain abnormalities arising during neurodevelopment. Methods: Five electronic databases (Medline, Embase, PsycINFO, ProQuest Central, and Web of Science) will be systematically searched between 1990 and 2019. The search terms will be a combination of MeSH (Medical Subject Headings), with keywords adapted to each database. Study reporting will follow the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines, and if relevant, study quality will be assessed using the Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. Eligible studies are those that sampled youth exposed to cannabis or illicit drugs and employed neurophysiological or neuropsychological assessment techniques. Studies will be excluded if participants had been clinically diagnosed with any psychiatric, neurological, or pharmacological condition. Results: This is an ongoing review. As of February 2020, papers are in full-text screening, with results predicted to be complete by July 2020. Conclusions: Integrating data collected on the three brain domains will enable an assessment of the links between structural, functional, and cognitive brain health across individuals and may support the early detection and prevention of neurodevelopmental harm.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere18349
Number of pages8
JournalJMIR Research Protocols
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Cannabis
  • Illicit drugs
  • Longitudinal review
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Neurology
  • Protocol
  • Review

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