Pharmacological actions of cannabinoids

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2005:(168):1-51. doi: 10.1007/3-540-26573-2_1.


Mammalian tissues express at least two types of cannabinoid receptor, CB1 and CB2, both G protein coupled. CB1 receptors are expressed predominantly at nerve terminals where they mediate inhibition of transmitter release. CB2 receptors are found mainly on immune cells, one of their roles being to modulate cytokine release. Endogenous ligands for these receptors (endocannabinoids) also exist. These are all eicosanoids; prominent examples include arachidonoylethanolamide (anandamide) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol. These discoveries have led to the development of CB1- and CB2-selective agonists and antagonists and of bioassays for characterizing such ligands. Cannabinoid receptor antagonists include the CB1-selective SR141716A, AM251, AM281 and LY320135, and the CB2-selective SR144528 and AM630. These all behave as inverse agonists, one indication that CB1 and CB2 receptors can exist in a constitutively active state. Neutral cannabinoid receptor antagonists that seem to lack inverse agonist properties have recently also been developed. As well as acting on CB1 and CB2 receptors, there is convincing evidence that anandamide can activate transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 (TRPV1) receptors. Certain cannabinoids also appear to have non-CB1, non-CB2, non-TRPV1 targets, for example CB2-like receptors that can mediate antinociception and "abnormal-cannabidiol" receptors that mediate vasorelaxation and promote microglial cell migration. There is evidence too for TRPV1-like receptors on glutamatergic neurons, for alpha2-adrenoceptor-like (imidazoline) receptors at sympathetic nerve terminals, for novel G protein-coupled receptors for R-(+)-WIN55212 and anandamide in the brain and spinal cord, for novel receptors for delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabinol on perivascular sensory nerves and for novel anandamide receptors in the gastro-intestinal tract. The presence of allosteric sites for cannabinoids on various ion channels and non-cannabinoid receptors has also been proposed. In addition, more information is beginning to emerge about the pharmacological actions of the non-psychoactive plant cannabinoid, cannabidiol. These recent advances in cannabinoid pharmacology are all discussed in this review.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Assay
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / classification
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / drug effects
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / physiology
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB2 / drug effects
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB2 / physiology
  • TRPV Cation Channels / drug effects
  • TRPV Cation Channels / physiology


  • Cannabinoids
  • Ligands
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB2
  • TRPV Cation Channels
  • TRPV1 receptor