Prolonged exposure to cannabinoids results in desensitization of cannabinoid receptors. Here, we compared the desensitization produced by the partial agonist, Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to that produced by the full agonist Win55,212-2 on cannabinoid-mediated inhibition of glutamatergic synaptic transmission. Synaptic activity between rat hippocampal neurons was determined from network-driven increases in the intracellular Ca(2+) concentration ([Ca(2+)](i) spikes). To assess the effects of prolonged treatment, cultures were incubated with cannabinoids, washed in 0.5% fatty-acid-free bovine serum albumin to ensure the removal of the lipophilic drug and then tested for inhibition of [Ca(2+)](i) spiking by Win55,212-2. In control experiments, 0.1 microM Win55,212-2 inhibited [Ca(2+)](i) spiking by 93 +/- 5%. Win55,212-2 produced significantly less inhibition of [Ca(2+)](i) spiking following 18-24h treatment with 1 microM THC (48 +/- 5%) or treatment with 1 microM Win55,212-2 (29 +/- 6%). Thus, THC produced significantly less functional desensitization than Win55,212-2. The desensitization produced by THC was maximal at 0.3 microM, remained stable between 1 and 7 days of preincubation and shifted the EC(50) of acute inhibition by Win55,212-2 from 27 to 251 nM. Differences in the long-term effects of cannabinoid receptor agonists on synaptic transmission may prove important for evaluating their therapeutic and abuse potential.