Cannabinoid compounds have been reported to excite ventral tegmental neurons through activation of cannabinoid CB1 receptors. More recently, biochemical and whole-cell voltage-clamp studies carried out on CB1-transfected AtT20 cells have shown a rapid desensitization of these receptors following activation of protein kinase C by 4-alpha-phorbol. To investigate the possible physiological correlates of this phenomenon, we have studied the effects of repeated cannabinoid treatment on ventral tegmental area dopaminergic neuronal firing in vitro. Rat brain slices containing the ventral tegmental area were used for single-unit extracellular recordings. Only neurons meeting established electrophysiological and pharmacological criteria for dopaminergic neurons were used in the study (firing neurons were detected either using tungsten or glass microelectrodes). The high-affinity cannabinoid agonist HU210 produced a concentration-dependent increase in firing (1-15 microM; EC(50) approximately 7 microM). Initial HU210 exposure produced a significant increase in cell firing rate in the ventral tegmental area, with a maximum approximately 3.5-fold increase over pre-drug basal firing; a subsequent exposure to HU210 produced an approximately threefold increase over basal firing. Nevertheless, the duration and onset of excitation produced by the cannabinoid differed significantly between the first and second exposures; the first excitation lasted significantly longer than the second and required less time to reach a comparable change in firing rate. The increases in firing rate and the time to return to basal firing were not significantly different between exposures. Furthermore, the cannabinoid antagonist SR141716A completely prevented the HU210-induced excitation whilst having no effect on its own, thus indicating a CB1-receptor mediated mechanism for the observed increase in firing. Ventral tegmental area neurons are also excited by the GABA(A) receptor antagonist bicuculline. To assess the role of GABA in cannabinoid-mediated excitation, HU210 was added in the presence of bicuculline. HU210 did not affect the initial bicuculline-induced increase in firing, suggesting different sites of action for the two compounds. Our data fail to support previously reported findings using repeated cannabinoid administration and cell preparations. The maintained increase in DA drive elicited by the potent cannabinoid agonist HU210 in the in vitro ventral tegmental circuit could explain some of the behavioural properties of cannabinoids, such as the lack of tolerance for the psychotropic effects of marijuana seen in human users.