Long-term effects of THC exposure on reward learning and motivated behavior in adolescent and adult male rats


The endocannabinoid system makes critical contributions to reward processing, motivation, and behavioral control. Repeated exposure to THC or other cannabinoid drugs can cause persistent adaptions in the endocannabinoid system and associated neural circuitry. It remains unclear how such treatments affect the way rewards are processed and pursued.

Objective and methods:

We examined if repeated THC exposure (5 mg/kg/day for 14 days) during adolescence or adulthood led to long-term changes in rats’ capacity to flexibly encode and use action-outcome associations for goal-directed decision making. Effects on hedonic feeding and progressive ratio responding were also assessed.


THC exposure had no effect on rats’ ability to flexibly select actions following reward devaluation. However, instrumental contingency degradation learning, which involves avoiding an action that is unnecessary for reward delivery, was augmented in rats with a history of adult but not adolescent THC exposure. THC-exposed rats also displayed more vigorous instrumental behavior in this study, suggesting a motivational enhancement. A separate experiment found that while THC exposure had no effect on hedonic feeding behavior, it increased rats’ willingness to work for food on a progressive ratio schedule, an effect that was more pronounced when THC was administered to adults. Adolescent and adult THC exposure had opposing effects on the CB1 receptor dependence of progressive ratio performance, decreasing and increasing sensitivity to rimonabant-induced behavioral suppression, respectively.


Our findings reveal that exposure to a translationally relevant THC exposure regimen induces long-lasting, age-dependent alterations in cognitive and motivational processes that regulate the pursuit of rewards.


Addiction; Cannabis; Eating; Emotion; Goal-directed action; Habit; Marijuana; Motivation.

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