The effects of cannabinoids on the brain
Ameri A
Department of Pharmacy and
Pharmacology of Natural Compounds,
University of Ulm, Germany.
Prog Neurobiol 1999 Jul; 58(4):315-48


Cannabinoids have a long history of consumption for recreational and medical reasons. The primary active constituent of the hemp plant Cannabis sativa is delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta9-THC). In humans, psychoactive cannabinoids produce euphoria, enhancement of sensory perception, tachycardia, antinociception, difficulties in concentration and impairment of memory. The cognitive deficiencies seem to persist after withdrawal. The toxicity of marijuana has been underestimated for a long time, since recent findings revealed delta9-THC-induced cell death with shrinkage of neurons and DNA fragmentation in the hippocampus. The acute effects of cannabinoids as well as the development of tolerance are mediated by G protein-coupled cannabinoid receptors. The CB1 receptor and its splice variant CB1A, are found predominantly in the brain with highest densities in the hippocampus, cerebellum and striatum. The CB2 receptor is found predominantly in the spleen and in haemopoietic cells and has only 44% overall nucleotide sequence identity with the CB1 receptor. The existence of this receptor provided the molecular basis for the immunosuppressive actions of marijuana. The CB1 receptor mediates inhibition of adenylate cyclase, inhibition of N- and P/Q-type calcium channels, stimulation of potassium channels, and activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase. The CB2 receptor mediates inhibition of adenylate cyclase and activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase. The discovery of endogenous cannabinoid receptor ligands, anandamide (N-arachidonylethanolamine) and 2-arachidonylglycerol made the notion of a central cannabinoid neuromodulatory system plausible. Anandamide is released from neurons upon depolarization through a mechanism that requires calcium-dependent cleavage from a phospholipid precursor in neuronal membranes. The release of anandamide is followed by rapid uptake into the plasma and hydrolysis by fatty-acid amidohydrolase. The psychoactive cannabinoids increase the activity of dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area-mesolimbic pathway. Since these dopaminergic circuits are known to play a pivotal role in mediating the reinforcing (rewarding) effects of the most drugs of abuse, the enhanced dopaminergic drive elicited by the cannabinoids is thought to underlie the reinforcing and abuse properties of marijuana. Thus, cannabinoids share a final common neuronal action with other major drugs of abuse such as morphine, ethanol and nicotine in producing facilitation of the mesolimbic dopamine system.
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