Genetic Predisposition vs Individual-Specific Processes in the Association between Psychotic-like Experiences and Cannabis Use

Nicole R. Karcher*, Deanna M. Barch, Catherine H. Demers, David A.A. Baranger, Andrew C. Heath, Michael T. Lynskey, Arpana Agrawal

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


Importance: Previous research indicates that cannabis use is associated with psychotic-like experiences (PLEs). However, it is unclear whether this association results from predispositional (ie, shared genetic) factors or individual-specific factors (eg, causal processes, such as cannabis use leading to PLEs). Objectives: To estimate genetic and environmental correlations between cannabis use and PLEs, and to examine PLEs in twin and nontwin sibling pairs discordant for exposure to cannabis use to disentangle predispositional from individual-specific effects. Design, Setting, and Participants: In this cross-sectional analysis, diagnostic interviews and self-reported data were collected from 2 separate population-based samples of twin and nontwin sibling pairs. Data from the Human Connectome Project were collected between August 10, 2012, and September 29, 2015, and data from the Australian Twin Registry Cohort 3 (ATR3) were collected between August 1, 2005, and August 31, 2010. Data were analyzed between August 17, 2017, and July 6, 2018. The study included data from 1188 Human Connectome Project participants and 3486 ATR3 participants, totaling 4674 participants. Main Outcomes and Measures: Three cannabis-involvement variables were examined: frequent use (ie, ≥100 times), a DSM-IV lifetime cannabis use disorder diagnosis, and current cannabis use. Genetic and environmental correlations between cannabis involvement and PLEs were estimated. Generalized linear mixed models examined PLE differences in twin and nontwin sibling pairs discordant for cannabis use. Results: Among the 4674 participants, the mean (SD) age was 30.5 (3.2) years, and 2923 (62.5%) were female. Data on race/ethnicity were not included as a covariate owing to lack of variability within the ATR3 sample; among the 1188 participants in the Human Connectome Project, 875 (73.7%) were white. Psychotic-like experiences were associated with frequent cannabis use (β = 0.11; 95% CI, 0.08-0.14), cannabis use disorder (β = 0.13; 95% CI, 0.09-0.16), and current cannabis use (β = 0.07; 95% CI, 0.04-0.10) even after adjustment for covariates. Correlated genetic factors explained between 69.2% and 84.1% of this observed association. Within discordant pairs of twins/siblings (Npairs, 308-324), Psychotic-like experiences were more common in cannabis-exposed individuals compared with their relative who used cannabis to a lesser degree (β ≥.23, P <.05; eg, frequent and infrequent cannabis-using relatives significantly differed, z = -5.41; P <.001). Conclusions and Relevance: Despite the strong contribution of shared genetic factors, frequent and problem cannabis use also appears to be associated with PLEs via person-specific pathways. This study's findings suggest that policy discussions surrounding legalization should consider the influence of escalations in cannabis use on traitlike indices of vulnerability, such as PLEs, which could contribute to pervasive psychological and interpersonal burden.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJAMA Psychiatry
Early online date17 Oct 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Oct 2018


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