A comparison of the apoptotic effect of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol in the neonatal and adult rat cerebral cortex

Eric J. Downer, Aoife Gowran, Veronica A. Campbell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


The maternal use of cannabis during pregnancy results in a number of cognitive deficits in the offspring that persist into adulthood. The endocannabinoid system has a role to play in neurodevelopmental processes such as neurogenesis, migration and synaptogenesis. However, exposure to phytocannabinoids, such as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, during gestation may interfere with these events to cause abnormal patterns of neuronal wiring and subsequent cognitive impairments. Aberrant cell death evoked by Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol may also contribute to cognitive deficits and in cultured neurones Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol induces apoptosis via the CB1 cannabinoid receptor. In this study we report that Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (5-50 μM) activates the stress-activated protein kinase, c-jun N-terminal kinase, and the pro-apoptotic protease, caspase-3, in in vitro cerebral cortical slices obtained from the neonatal rat brain. The proclivity of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol to impact on these pro-apoptotic signalling molecules was not observed in in vitro cortical slices obtained from the adult rat brain. In vivo, subcutaneous administration of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (1-30 mg/kg) activated c-jun N-terminal kinase, caspase-3 and cathepsin-D, and induced DNA fragmentation in the cerebral cortex of neonatal rats. In contrast, in vivo administration of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol to adult rats was not associated with the apoptotic pathway in the cerebral cortex. The data provide evidence which supports the hypothesis that the neonatal rat brain is more vulnerable to the neurotoxic influence of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, suggesting that the cognitive deficits that are observed in humans exposed to marijuana during gestation may be due, in part, to abnormal engagement of the apoptotic cascade during brain development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-47
Number of pages9
JournalBrain Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 17 2007


  • Δ-Tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Apoptosis
  • Caspase-3
  • Cathepsin
  • Development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Molecular Biology

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