Active cannabimimetic drugs are known to bind to two receptor subtypes: one, called CB1, is mainly localised in the central nervous system while the other (CB2) is expressed preferentially in the immune system. SR 141716A has been demonstrated to have a nanomolar affinity for CB1 receptor subtypes and a micromolar affinity for CB2 receptors. Moreover, it is an effective antagonist at these receptors both in vitro (antagonism of cannabinoid activity in vas deferens) and in vivo (suppression of the hypothermia elicited by WIN 55,212-2). The present experiments were thus undertaken to investigate the role of CB1 receptors in cannabinoid discrimination. Rats were trained to discriminate WIN 55,212-2 (0.3mg/kg s.c.) from saline in a standard operant (FR10) food rewarded discrimination procedure. Acquisition of the discrimination required 16 days on average and the ED(50) of WIN 55,212-2 was 0.032mg/kg s.c. CP55,940 and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta(9)-THC) generalised to the WIN 55,212-2 stimulus with the respective ED(50)s of 0.007mg/kg (s.c.) and 0.64mg/kg (p.o.). Pretreatment with SR 141716A antagonised the cue elicited by WIN 55,212-2 (ED(50) = 1.6mg/kg) as well as the generalisation to CP 55,940 (ED(50) = 0.08mg/kg) and to Delta(9)-THC (ED(50) = 0.15mg/kg). SR 140098 is a CB1 antagonist as potent as SR 141716A in vitro. This compound is unlikely to pass into the brain since it failed to displace [(3)H]-CP55, 940 from rat brain membranes ex vivo, and to reverse WIN 55,212-2-induced hypothermia. SR 140098, in contrast to SR 141716A, did not antagonise the WIN 55,212-2 stimulus. Taken together, the present results demonstrate that the brain CB1 receptor subtype mediates the cannabinoid cue.