The endocannabinoid system has been studied using genetic and pharmacological methods. These studies have revealed that cannabinoids act as neuromodulators for a variety of processes, including motor learning, appetite, and pain sensation, among other cognitive and physical processes. The localization of the CB1 receptor in the endocannabinoid system has a very large degree of overlap with the orexinergic projection system, which mediates many of the same functions, both physical and cognitive. Moreover, CB1 is colocalized on orexin projection neurons in the lateral hypothalamus and many output structures of the orexin system, where the CB1 and orexin receptor 1(OX1) receptors physically and functionally join together to form the CB1–OX1 receptor heterodimer.
Expression of receptors
Cannabinoid binding sites exist throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. The two most relevant receptors for cannabinoids are the CB1 and CB2 receptors, which are expressed predominantly in the brain and immune system respectively. Density of expression varies based on species and correlates with the efficacy that cannabinoids will have in modulating specific aspects of behavior related to the site of expression. For example, in rodents, the highest concentration of cannabinoid binding sites are in the basal gangliaand cerebellum, regions of the brain involved in the initiation and coordination of movement. In humans, cannabinoid receptors exist in much lower concentration in these regions, which helps explain why cannabinoids possess a greater efficacy in altering rodent motor movements than they do in humans.
A recent analysis of cannabinoid binding in CB1 and CB2 receptor knockout mice found cannabinoid responsiveness even when these receptors were not being expressed, indicating that an additional binding receptor may be present in the brain. Binding has been demonstrated by 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) on the TRPV1 receptor suggesting that this receptor may be a candidate for the established response.
In addition to CB1 and CB2, certain orphan receptors are known to bind endocannabinoids as well, including GPR18, GPR55 (a regulator of neuroimmune function), and GPR119. CB1 has also been noted to form a functional human receptor heterodimer in orexin neurons with OX1, the CB1–OX1 receptor, which mediates feeding behavior and certain physical processes such as cannabinoid-induced pressor responses which are known to occur through signaling in the rostral ventrolateral medulla.
During neurotransmission, the pre-synaptic neuron releases neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft which bind to cognate receptors expressed on the post-synaptic neuron. Based upon the interaction between the transmitter and receptor, neurotransmitters may trigger a variety of effects in the post-synaptic cell, such as excitation, inhibition, or the initiation of second messenger cascades. Based on the cell, these effects may result in the on-site synthesis of endogenous cannabinoids anandamide or 2-AG by a process that is not entirely clear, but results from an elevation in intracellular calcium. Expression appears to be exclusive, so that both types of endocannabinoids are not co-synthesized. This exclusion is based on synthesis-specific channel activation: a recent study found that in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, calcium entry through voltage-sensitive calcium channels produced an L-type current resulting in 2-AG production, while activation of mGluR1/5 receptors triggered the synthesis of anandamide.
Evidence suggests that the depolarization-induced influx of calcium into the post-synaptic neuron causes the activation of an enzyme called transacylase. This enzyme is suggested to catalyze the first step of endocannabinoid biosynthesis by converting phosphatidylethanolamine, a membrane-resident phospholipid, into N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine(NAPE). Experiments have shown that phospholipase D cleaves NAPE to yield anandamide. This process is mediated by bile acids. In NAPE-phospholipase D (NAPEPLD)-knockout mice, cleavage of NAPE is reduced in low calcium concentrations, but not abolished, suggesting multiple, distinct pathways are involved in anandamide synthesis. The synthesis of 2-AG is less established and warrants further research..
Once released into the extracellular space by a putative endocannabinoid transporter, messengers are vulnerable to glial cell inactivation. Endocannabinoids are taken up by a transporter on the glial cell and degraded by fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which cleaves anandamide into arachidonic acid and ethanolamine or monoacylglycerol lipase(MAGL), and 2-AG into arachidonic acid and glycerol. While arachidonic acid is a substrate for leukotriene and prostaglandin synthesis, it is unclear whether this degradative by-product has unique functions in the central nervous system. Emerging data in the field also points to FAAH being expressed in postsynaptic neurons complementary to presynaptic neurons expressing cannabinoid receptors, supporting the conclusion that it is major contributor to the clearance and inactivation of anandamide and 2-AG after endocannabinoid reuptake. A neuropharmacological study demonstrated that an inhibitor of FAAH (URB597) selectively increases anandamide levels in the brain of rodents and primates. Such approaches could lead to the development of new drugs with analgesic, anxiolytic-like and antidepressant-like effects, which are not accompanied by overt signs of abuse liability.
Mice treated with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) show suppression of long-term potentiation in the hippocampus, a process that is essential for the formation and storage of long-term memory. These results concur with anecdotal evidence suggesting that smoking Cannabis impairs short-term memory. Consistent with this finding, mice without the CB1receptor show enhanced memory and long-term potentiation indicating that the endocannabinoid system may play a pivotal role in the extinction of old memories. One study found that the high-dose treatment of rats with the synthetic cannabinoid HU-210 over several weeks resulted in stimulation of neural growth in the rats' hippocampus region, a part of the limbic system playing a part in the formation of declarative and spatial memories, but did not investigate the effects on short-term or long-term memory. Taken together, these findings suggest that the effects of endocannabinoids on the various brain networks involved in learning and memory may vary.
Role in hippocampal neurogenesis
In the adult brain, the endocannabinoid system facilitates the neurogenesis of hippocampal granule cells. In the sub granular zone of the dentate gyrus, multipotent neural progenitors (NP) give rise to daughter cells that, over the course of several weeks, mature into granule cells whose axons project to and synapse onto dendrites on the CA3region. NPs in the hippocampus have been shown to possess fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and express CB1 and utilize 2-AG. Intriguingly, CB1 activation by endogenous or exogenous cannabinoids promote NP proliferation and differentiation; this activation is absent in CB1 knockouts and abolished in the presence of antagonist.
Induction of synaptic depression
The inhibitory effects of cannabinoid receptor stimulation on neurotransmitter release have caused this system to be connected to various forms of depressant plasticity. A recent study conducted with the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis found that the endurance of the depressant effects was mediated by two different signaling pathways based on the type of receptor activated. 2-AG was found to act on presynaptic CB1 receptors to mediate retrograde short-term depression (STD) following activation of L-type calcium currents, while anandamide was synthesized after mGluR5 activation and triggered autocrine signalling onto postsynaptic TRPV1 receptors that induced long-term depression (LTD). Similar post-synaptic receptor dependencies were found in the striatum, but here both effects relied on presynaptic CB1 receptors. These findings provide the brain a direct mechanism to selectively inhibit neuronal excitability over variable time scales. By selectively internalizing different receptors, the brain may limit the production of specific endocannabinoids to favor a time scale in accordance with its needs.
Evidence for the role of the endocannabinoid system in food-seeking behavior comes from a variety of cannabinoid studies. Emerging data suggests that THC acts via CB1 receptors in the hypothalamic nuclei to directly increase appetite. It is thought that hypothalamic neurons tonically produce endocannabinoids that work to tightly regulate hunger. The amount of endocannabinoids produced is inversely correlated with the amount of leptin in the blood. For example, mice without leptin not only become massively obese but express abnormally high levels of hypothalamic endocannabinoids as a compensatory mechanism. Similarly, when these mice were treated with an endocannabinoid inverse agonists, such as rimonabant, food intake was reduced. When the CB1 receptor is knocked out in mice, these animals tend to be leaner and less hungry than wild-type mice. A related study examined the effect of THC on the hedonic (pleasure) value of food and found enhanced dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens and increased pleasure-related behavior after administration of a sucrose solution. A related study found that endocannabinoids affect taste perception in taste cells In taste cells, endocannabinoids were shown to selectively enhance the strength of neural signaling for sweet tastes, whereas leptin decreased the strength of this same response. While there is need for more research, these results suggest that cannabinoid activity in the hypothalamus and nucleus accumbens is related to appetitive, food-seeking behavior.
While the secretion of glucocorticoids in response to stressful stimuli is an adaptive response necessary for an organism to respond appropriately to a stressor, persistent secretion may be harmful. The endocannabinoid system has been implicated in the habituation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) to repeated exposure to restraint stress. Studies have demonstrated differential synthesis of anandamide and 2-AG during tonic stress. A decrease of anandamide was found along the axis that contributed to basal hypersecretion of corticosterone; in contrast, an increase of 2-AG was found in the amygdala after repeated stress, which was negatively correlated to magnitude of the corticosterone response. All effects were abolished by the CB1 antagonist AM251, supporting the conclusion that these effects were cannabinoid-receptor dependent. These findings show that anandamide and 2-AG divergently regulate the HPA axis response to stress: while habituation of the stress-induced HPA axis via 2-AG prevents excessive secretion of glucocorticoids to non-threatening stimuli, the increase of basal corticosterone secretion resulting from decreased anandamide allows for a facilitated response of the HPA axis to novel stimuli.
Exploration, social behavior, and anxiety
Prolonged, systemic exposure to cannabinoids has often been associated with anti-social effects. To investigate this theory, a cannabinoid receptor-knockout mouse study examined the effect that these receptors play on exploratory behavior. Researchers selectively targeted glutamatergic and GABAergic cortical interneurons and studied results in open field, novel object, and sociability tests. Eliminating glutamatergic cannabinoid receptors led to decreased object exploration, social interactions, and increased aggressive behavior. In contrast, GABAergic cannabinoid receptor-knockout mice showed increased exploration of objects, socialization, and open field movement. These contrasting effects reveal the importance of the endocannabinoid system in regulating anxiety-dependent behavior. Results suggest that glutamatergic cannabinoid receptors are not only responsible for mediating aggression, but produce an anxiolytic-like function by inhibiting excessive arousal: excessive excitation produces anxiety that limited the mice from exploring both animate and inanimate objects. In contrast, GABAergic neurons appear to control an anxiogenic-like function by limiting inhibitory transmitter release. Taken together, these two sets of neurons appear to help regulate the organism's overall sense of arousal during novel situations.
Evidence suggests that endocannabinoids may function as both neuromodulators and immunomodulators in the immune system. Here, they seem to serve an autoprotective role to ameliorate muscle spasms, inflammation, and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis and skeletal muscle spasms. Functionally, the activation of cannabinoid receptors has been demonstrated to play a role in the activation of GTPases in macrophages, neutrophils, and BM cells. These receptors have also been implicated in the proper migration of B cells into the marginal zone (MZ) and the regulation of healthy IgM levels. Interestingly, some disorders seem to trigger an upregulation of cannabinoid receptors selectively in cells or tissues related to symptom relief and inhibition of disease progression, such as in that rodent neuropathic pain model, where receptors are increased in the spinal cord microglia, dorsal root ganglion, and thalamic neurons.
Energy balance and metabolism
The endocannabinoid system has been shown to have a homeostatic role by controlling several metabolic functions, such as energy storage and nutrient transport. It acts on peripheral tissues such as adipocytes, hepatocytes, the gastrointestinal tract, the skeletal muscles and the endocrine pancreas. It has also been implied in modulating insulin sensitivity. Through all of this, the endocannabinoid system may play a role in clinical conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and atherosclerosis, which may also give it a cardiovascular role.