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Neuropharmacology. 2009;56 Suppl 1:235-43. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2008.07.018. Epub 2008 Jul 19.

The endocannabinoid system as a target for the treatment of cannabis dependence.

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


The endocannabinoid system modulates neurotransmission at inhibitory and excitatory synapses in brain regions relevant to the regulation of pain, emotion, motivation, and cognition. This signaling system is engaged by the active component of cannabis, Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta9-THC), which exerts its pharmacological effects by activation of G protein-coupled type-1 (CB1) and type-2 (CB2) cannabinoid receptors. During frequent cannabis use a series of poorly understood neuroplastic changes occur, which lead to the development of dependence. Abstinence in cannabinoid-dependent individuals elicits withdrawal symptoms that promote relapse into drug use, suggesting that pharmacological strategies aimed at alleviating cannabis withdrawal might prevent relapse and reduce dependence. Cannabinoid replacement therapy and CB1 receptor antagonism are two potential treatments for cannabis dependence that are currently under investigation. However, abuse liability and adverse side-effects may limit the scope of each of these approaches. A potential alternative stems from the recognition that (i) frequent cannabis use may cause an adaptive down-regulation of brain endocannabinoid signaling, and (ii) that genetic traits that favor hyperactivity of the endocannabinoid system in humans may decrease susceptibility to cannabis dependence. These findings suggest in turn that pharmacological agents that elevate brain levels of the endocannabinoid neurotransmitters, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), might alleviate cannabis withdrawal and dependence. One such agent, the fatty-acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) inhibitor URB597, selectively increases anandamide levels in the brain of rodents and primates. Preclinical studies show that URB597 produces analgesic, anxiolytic-like and antidepressant-like effects in rodents, which are not accompanied by overt signs of abuse liability. In this article, we review evidence suggesting that (i) cannabis influences brain endocannabinoid signaling and (ii) FAAH inhibitors such as URB597 might offer a possible therapeutic avenue for the treatment of cannabis withdrawal.

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