Effect of GHB-use and GHB-induced comas on dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functioning in humans

Filipa Raposo Pereira, Minni T B McMaster, Nikki Polderman, Yvon D A T de Vries, Wim van den Brink, Guido A van Wingen
NeuroImage: Clinical 2018, 20: 923-930

BACKGROUND: Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB) is a recreational drug associated with increasing numbers of GHB-dependent patients and emergency attendances often related to GHB-induced comas. Working memory (WM) deficits have been reported in association with GHB use, and animal studies have shown that GHB induces oxidative stress in vulnerable WM-related brain areas such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). However, the effects of chronic GHB use and multiple GHB-induced comas on WM-related brain function in humans remains unknown.

METHODS: We recruited 27 GHB users with ≥4 GHB-induced comas (GHB-Coma), 27 GHB users who never experienced GHB-induced coma (GHB-NoComa), and 27 polydrug users who never used GHB (No-GHB). Participants performed an n-back WM task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to probe DLPFC functioning.

RESULTS: The GHB-Coma group had lower premorbid IQ (p = .006) than the GHB-NoComa group despite comparable age and education level. There were also group differences in the use of other drugs than GHB. Therefore, all group comparisons were adjusted for IQ and drug use other than GHB. Compared with the GHB-NoComa and the No-GHB groups, the GHB-Coma group showed increased activity in the right DLPFC (pSVC  = 0.028) and increased functional connectivity of the right DLPFC with a cluster comprising the left anterior cingulate and medial frontal gyrus (pFWE  = 0.003). No significant fMRI differences were observed between the GHB-NoComa and No-GHB groups. Due to technical problems, no behavioural data were collected.

DISCUSSION: These results suggest that multiple GHB-induced comas, but not GHB-use per se, are associated with alterations in WM-related brain function. Public awareness campaigns are required to minimize the potential adverse effects induced by GHB recreational use, and especially GHB-induced comas, even if no immediate side effects are experienced.

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