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Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2009 Jul;205(1):63-72. doi: 10.1007/s00213-009-1518-3. Epub 2009 Apr 3.

An endocannabinoid signal associated with desire for alcohol is suppressed in recently abstinent alcoholics.

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  • 1Department of Pharmacology, University of California, Irvine, 3101 Gillespie NRF, Irvine, CA 92697, USA.



Alcoholics report persistent alcohol craving that is heightened by cognitive cues, stressful situations, and abstinence. The role of endogenous cannabinoids in human alcohol craving--though long suspected--remains elusive.


We employed laboratory exposure to stress, alcohol cue, and neutral relaxed situations through guided imagery procedures to evoke alcohol desire and craving in healthy social drinkers (n = 11) and in treatment-engaged, recently abstinent alcoholic subjects (n = 12) and assessed alcohol craving, heart rate, and changes in circulating endocannabinoid levels. Subjective anxiety was also measured as a manipulation check for the procedures.


In healthy social drinkers, alcohol cue imagery increased circulating levels of the endocannabinoid anandamide, whereas neutral and stress-related imagery had no such effect. Notably, baseline and response anandamide levels in these subjects were negatively and positively correlated with self-reported alcohol craving scores, respectively. Cue-induced increases in heart rate were also correlated with anandamide responses. By contrast, no imagery-induced anandamide mobilization was observed in alcoholics, whose baseline anandamide levels were markedly reduced compared to healthy drinkers and were uncorrelated to either alcohol craving or heart rate.


The results suggest that plasma anandamide levels provide a marker of the desire for alcohol in social drinkers, which is suppressed in recently abstinent alcoholics.

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