Marijuana Users More Sensitive to Positive Than Negative Reward Stimuli

In the research on substance use (SUD), reward and risk processing has been studied at length. Experts believe that people with addictions to drugs and alcohol may have distorted reward processes that make them more susceptible to substance use. In fact, risk/reward is often the center of drug and alcohol treatment programs. People who are trying to overcome these addictions may be less able to control the desire for rewards and disregard risks associated with drug and alcohol use, thus making them more vulnerable to continued use.

To determine how marijuana use affects this process, Francesca M. Filbey of the Center for Brain Health and School of Behavioral and Brain Science at the University of Texas recently conducted a study comparing the risk/reward processes of 59 individuals with heavy marijuana use histories (MJ) to the processes of 27 non-marijuana-using control participants (CON). Using monetary delay incentive tasks, Filbey was able to assess the varying degrees of sensitivity to reward and risk in the participants.

She found that the MJ participants had higher sensitivity to positive reinforcement and rewards than to negative rewards, although they were still more sensitive to negative rewards than the CON participants. This suggests that people who use marijuana may believe that the reward of using outweighs the risk. Also, for those who experience withdrawal, the fear and avoidance that comes from negative reinforcement (withdrawal) may cause users to choose the reward of using as a method to avoid the negative feelings associated with withdrawal symptoms.

In fact, Filbey found that the participants with the highest levels of withdrawal symptoms had the lowest amygdala response, which is directly influential of fear and avoidance. Thus, these participants were numb not only to reward, but also to fear and risk associated with using. Overall, these findings show that marijuana users in this study had heightened sensitivity to rewards and diminished sensitivity to negative stimuli when compared to control participants. Filbey added, “These oppositional forces may then work together to drive continued drug use and elevate risk for relapse.”

Filbey, F.M., Dunlop, J., Myers, U.S. (2013). Neural Effects of Positive and Negative Incentives during Marijuana Withdrawal. PLoS ONE 8(5): e61470. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061470

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  • Celeste


    May 23rd, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    I have never really thought of marijuana use as hard core, you know? Like, I never think about someone having a real addiction to it, because it always seems like once it wears off, you are exactly the same, not like with other harder drugs. But I guess that there people for whom this is pretty serious, and they will have a harder time breaking the habit than I would have thought.

  • Adelaide


    May 23rd, 2013 at 9:39 PM

    Celeste: theres always gonna be people that can anything…and I mean anything.maybe tis their psychology or habit or whatever but they jus dont know how to control…going overboard is a constant with them n they give a bad name to all…ve seen people be stupid wid alcohol,cannabis,why even sex and relationships…millions of others do all these things just fine but some mess it up for all of us…!

  • rosalyn


    May 25th, 2013 at 12:12 AM

    im no expert but im surprised to see that our brain can change so much with drug usage that we actually have biases toward positive and negative rewards…could this be used in a way that one can pop a pill and be more determined to work?not kidding,this is a serious query.

  • Jamie


    May 26th, 2013 at 5:27 AM

    Cannabis users do not take much “risk”
    from using cannabis, because it covers contribution to well being on many levels without physical harm, or addiction.

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