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Eur J Pharmacol. 2003 Nov 7;480(1-3):133-50.

The endocannabinoid system in the basal ganglia and in the mesolimbic reward system: implications for neurological and psychiatric disorders.

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  • 1Endocannabinoid Research Group, Istituto Chimica Biomolecolare, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Via Campi Flegrei 34, Comprensorio Olivetti, Bldg. 70, I-80078 (NA), Pozzuoli, Italy.


To date, N-arachidonoylethanolamine (anandamide) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol are the best studied endocannabinoids and are thought to act as retrograde messengers in the central nervous system (CNS). By activating presynaptic cannabinoid CB1 receptors, they can reduce glutamate release in dorsal and ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens) and alter synaptic plasticity, thereby modulating neurotransmission in the basal ganglia and in the mesolimbic reward system. In this review, we will focus on the role of the endocannabinoid system within these neuronal pathways and describe its effect on dopaminergic transmission and vice versa. The endocannabinoid system is unlikely to directly affect dopamine release, but can modify dopamine transmission trough trans-synaptic mechanisms, involving gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-ergic and glutamatergic synapses, as well as by converging signal transduction cascades of the cannabinoid and dopamine receptors. The dopamine and endocannabinoid systems exert a mutual control on each other. Cannabinergic signalling may lead to release of dopamine, which can act via dopamine D1-like receptors as a negative feedback mechanism to counteract the effects of activation of the cannabinoid CB1 receptor. On the other hand, dopaminergic signalling via dopamine D2-like receptors may lead to up-regulation of cannabinergic signalling, which is likely to represent a negative feedback on dopaminergic signalling. The consequences of these interactions become evident in pathological conditions in which one of the two systems is likely to be malfunctioning. We will discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson's and Huntington's disease, drug addiction and schizophrenia. Furthermore, the possible role of the endocannabinoid system in disorders not necessarily depending on the dopaminergic system, such as eating disorders and anxiety, will be described.

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