Marijuana and cannabinoid regulation of brain reward circuits

Br J Pharmacol. 2004 Sep;143(2):227-34. doi: 10.1038/sj.bjp.0705931. Epub 2004 Aug 16.


The reward circuitry of the brain consists of neurons that synaptically connect a wide variety of nuclei. Of these brain regions, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens (NAc) play central roles in the processing of rewarding environmental stimuli and in drug addiction. The psychoactive properties of marijuana are mediated by the active constituent, Delta(9)-THC, interacting primarily with CB1 cannabinoid receptors in a large number of brain areas. However, it is the activation of these receptors located within the central brain reward circuits that is thought to play an important role in sustaining the self-administration of marijuana in humans, and in mediating the anxiolytic and pleasurable effects of the drug. Here we describe the cellular circuitry of the VTA and the NAc, define the sites within these areas at which cannabinoids alter synaptic processes, and discuss the relevance of these actions to the regulation of reinforcement and reward. In addition, we compare the effects of Delta(9)-THC with those of other commonly abused drugs on these reward circuits, and we discuss the roles that endogenous cannabinoids may play within these brain pathways, and their possible involvement in regulating ongoing brain function, independently of marijuana consumption. We conclude that, whereas Delta(9)-THC alters the activity of these central reward pathways in a manner that is consistent with other abused drugs, the cellular mechanism through which this occurs is likely different, relying upon the combined regulation of several afferent pathways to the VTA.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cannabinoids / chemistry
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • National Institutes of Health (U.S.)
  • Reward*
  • United States


  • Cannabinoids