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Critical Reviews™ in Neurobiology

ISSN Print: 0892-0915
ISSN Online: 2375-0014

Archives: Volume 10, 1996 to Volume 20, 2008

Critical Reviews™ in Neurobiology

DOI: 10.1615/CritRevNeurobiol.v13.i3.20
pages 243-281

Behavioral Effects of Cannabinoid Agents in Animals

Frederique Chaperon
INSERM U.288 and Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine Pitie-Salpetriere, 91, boulevard de l'Hopital, 75634 Paris Cedex 13, France
Marie-Helene Thiebot
INSERM U.288 and Department of Pharmacology, Faculty of Medicine Pitie-Salpetriere, 91, boulevard de l'Hopital, 75634 Paris Cedex 13, France


Two subtypes of cannabinoid receptors have been identified to date, the CB, receptor, essentially located in the CNS, but also in peripheral tissues, and the CB2 receptor, found only at the periphery. The identification of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) as the major active component of marijuana (Cannabis sativa), the recent emergence of potent synthetic ligands and the identification of anandamide and sn-2 arachidonylglycerol as putative endogenous ligands for cannabinoid receptors in the brain, have contributed to advancing cannabinoid pharmacology and approaching the neurobiological mechanisms involved in physiological and behavioral effects of cannabinoids. Most of the agonists exhibit nonselective affinity for CB1/CB2 receptors, and Δ9-THC and anandamide probably act as partial agonists. Some recently synthesized molecules are highly selective for CB2 receptors, whereas selective agonists for the CB1 receptors are not yet available. A small number of antagonists exist that display a high selectivity for either CB1 or CB2 receptors. Cannabinomimetics produce complex pharmacological and behavioral effects that probably involve numerous neuronal substrates. Interactions with dopamine, acetylcholine, opiate, and GABAergic systems have been demonstrated in several brain structures. In animals, cannabinoid agonists such as Δ9-THC, WIN 55,212-2, and CP 55,940 produce a characteristic combination of four symptoms, hypothermia, analgesia, hypoactivity, and catalepsy. They are reversed by the selective CB1 receptor antagonist, SR 141716, providing good evidence for the involvement of CB1-related mechanisms. Anandamide exhibits several differences, compared with other agonists. In particular, hypothermia, analgesia, and catalepsy induced by this endogenous ligand are not reversed by SR 141716. Cannabinoid-related processes seem also involved in cognition, memory, anxiety, control of appetite, emesis, inflammatory, and immune responses. Agonists may induce biphasic effects, for example, hyperactivity at low doses and severe motor deficits at larger doses. Intriguingly, although cannabis is widely used as recreational drug in humans, only a few studies revealed an appetitive potential of cannabimimetics in animals, and evidence for aversive effects of Δ9-THC, WIN 55,212-2, and CP 55,940 is more readily obtained in a variety of tests. The selective blockade of CB1 receptors by SR 141716 impaired the perception of the appetitive value of positive reinforcers (food, cocaine, morphine) and reduced the motivation for sucrose, beer and alcohol consumption, indicating that positive incentive and/or motivational processes could be under a permissive control of CB1-related mechanisms.
There is little evidence that cannabinoid systems are activated under basal conditions. However, by using SR 141716 as a tool, a tonic involvement of a CB1-mediated cannabinoid link has been demonstrated, notably in animals suffering from chronic pain, faced with anxiogenic stimuli or highly motivational reinforcers. Some effects of SR 141716 also suggest that CB1-related mechanisms exert a tonic control on cognitive processes.
Extensive basic research is still needed to elucidate the roles of cannabinoid systems, both in the brain and at the periphery, in normal physiology and in diseases. Additional compounds, such as selective CB1 receptor agonists, ligands that do not cross the blood brain barrier, drugs interfering with synthesis, degradation or uptake of endogenous ligand(s) of CB receptors, are especially needed to understand when and how cannabinoid systems are activated. In turn, new therapeutic strategies would likely to emerge.

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