Background and rationale: Starting with the discovery of an endogenous brain cannabinoid system with specific receptors and endogenous ligands, research in the cannabinoid field has accelerated dramatically over the last 15 years. Cannabis is the most used illicit psychotropic substance in the world but only recently have reliable preclinical models become available for investigating the rewarding and dependence-producing actions of its psychoactive constituent, delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Objectives: The goal of this review is to examine the various animal models currently available that are being used to facilitate our understanding of the rewarding and dependence-producing actions of cannabinoids, which are central to their abuse liability, and of the neurochemical mechanisms that may underlie these actions of cannabinoids.
Results and conclusions: Recent demonstrations that strong and persistent intravenous self-administration behavior can be obtained in squirrel monkeys using a range of THC doses that are in agreement with the total intake and the single doses of THC normally self-administered by humans smoking marijuana cigarettes provides a reliable and direct tool for assessing the reinforcing effects of THC that are central to its abuse liability. In addition, recent demonstrations of persistent intravenous self-administration of synthetic cannabinoid CB1 receptor agonists by rats and mice and the development of genetically modified mice lacking specific cannabinoid receptors provide convenient rodent models for exploring underlying neurochemical mechanisms. Repeated demonstrations in rats that THC and synthetic CB1 agonists can induce conditioned place preferences or aversions, depending on details of dose and spacing, can reduce the threshold for intracranial self-stimulation behavior under certain conditions, and can serve as effective discriminative stimuli for operant behavior provide less direct, but more rapidly established, measures for investigating the rewarding effects of cannabinoids. Finally, there have been numerous recent reports of major functional interactions between endogenous cannabinoid, opioid, and dopaminergic neurotransmitter systems in areas such as analgesia, physical dependence and tolerance development, and drug reinforcement or reward. This provides an opportunity to search for drugs with the beneficial therapeutic effects of currently available cannabinoids or opioids but without undesirable adverse effects such as abuse liability.