The effects of cannabinoids on ketogenesis in primary cultures of rat astrocytes were studied. Delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major active component of marijuana, produced a malonyl-CoA-independent stimulation of carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (CPT-I) and ketogenesis from [14C]palmitate. The THC-induced stimulation of ketogenesis was mimicked by the synthetic cannabinoid HU-210 and was prevented by pertussis toxin and the CB1 cannabinoid receptor antagonist SR141716. Experiments performed with different cellular modulators indicated that the THC-induced stimulation of ketogenesis was independent of cyclic AMP, Ca2+, protein kinase C, and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK). The possible involvement of ceramide in the activation of ketogenesis by cannabinoids was subsequently studied. THC produced a CB1 receptor-dependent stimulation of sphingomyelin breakdown that was concomitant to an elevation of intracellular ceramide levels. Addition of exogenous sphingomyelinase to the astrocyte culture medium led to a MAPK-independent activation of ketogenesis that was quantitatively similar and not additive to that exerted by THC. Furthermore, ceramide activated CPT-I in astrocyte mitochondria. Results thus indicate that cannabinoids stimulate ketogenesis in astrocytes by a mechanism that may rely on CB1 receptor activation, sphingomyelin hydrolysis, and ceramide-mediated activation of CPT-I.