An endocannabinoid mechanism in relapse to drug seeking: a review of animal studies and clinical perspectives

Brain Res Rev. 2007 Jan;53(1):1-16. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2006.05.003. Epub 2006 Jul 12.


Detoxification from drug abuse is strongly threatened by the occurrence of renewed episodes of drug intake. In human addicts, relapse to drug seeking may take place even after a considerably long period from the last drug consumption. Over the last decade, the endocannabinoid system has received remarkable attention due to its unique features, including its rewarding properties closely resembling those of the most commonly abused substances and its multiple therapeutic implications. Although limited at present, evidence is now emerging on a possible participation of the endogenous cannabinoid system in the regulation of relapsing phenomena. Both stimulation and blockade of the central cannabinoid CB-sub1 receptor have proved to play an important role in drug- as well as in cue-induced reinstatement of drug seeking behavior. Indeed, while CB-sub1 receptor stimulation may elicit relapse not only to cannabinoid seeking but also to cocaine, heroin, alcohol and methamphetamine, this effect is significantly attenuated, when not fully prevented, by pretreatment with the CB-sub1 receptor antagonist rimonabant. However, corroborating data on the involvement of the cannabinoid system in stress-induced reinstatement are still rather scarce. The present review attempts to collect data obtained from different laboratories using diverse experimental approaches, to provide a comprehensive picture of the recent evidence of a relationship between the cannabinoid system and the neurobiological mechanisms leading to relapse. For each class of abused drugs, the conspicuous progress made in delineating the role of the endocannabinoid system in relapse to drug seeking has been examined by placing particular emphasis on the findings obtained from behavioral studies. After summarizing findings and implications emerging from the reviewed studies, we conclude by briefly discussing what information is still missing and how missing information might be obtained.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators / genetics
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators / metabolism*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endocannabinoids*
  • Humans
  • Piperidines / pharmacology
  • Piperidines / therapeutic use
  • Pyrazoles / pharmacology
  • Pyrazoles / therapeutic use
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / drug effects
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism
  • Reward
  • Rimonabant
  • Secondary Prevention
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / metabolism
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / prevention & control
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*


  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Piperidines
  • Pyrazoles
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1
  • Rimonabant