Paracetamol: new vistas of an old drug

CNS Drug Rev. Fall-Winter 2006;12(3-4):250-75. doi: 10.1111/j.1527-3458.2006.00250.x.

Abstract

Paracetamol (acetaminophen) is one of the most popular and widely used drugs for the treatment of pain and fever. It occupies a unique position among analgesic drugs. Unlike NSAIDs it is almost unanimously considered to have no antiinflammatory activity and does not produce gastrointestinal damage or untoward cardiorenal effects. Unlike opiates it is almost ineffective in intense pain and has no depressant effect on respiration. Although paracetamol has been used clinically for more than a century, its mode of action has been a mystery until about one year ago, when two independent groups (Zygmunt and colleagues and Bertolini and colleagues) produced experimental data unequivocally demonstrating that the analgesic effect of paracetamol is due to the indirect activation of cannabinoid CB(1) receptors. In brain and spinal cord, paracetamol, following deacetylation to its primary amine (p-aminophenol), is conjugated with arachidonic acid to form N-arachidonoylphenolamine, a compound already known (AM404) as an endogenous cannabinoid. The involved enzyme is fatty acid amide hydrolase. N-arachidonoylphenolamine is an agonist at TRPV1 receptors and an inhibitor of cellular anandamide uptake, which leads to increased levels of endogenous cannabinoids; moreover, it inhibits cyclooxygenases in the brain, albeit at concentrations that are probably not attainable with analgesic doses of paracetamol. CB(1) receptor antagonist, at a dose level that completely prevents the analgesic activity of a selective CB(1) receptor agonist, completely prevents the analgesic activity of paracetamol. Thus, paracetamol acts as a pro-drug, the active one being a cannabinoid. These findings finally explain the mechanism of action of paracetamol and the peculiarity of its effects, including the behavioral ones. Curiously, just when the first CB(1) agonists are being introduced for pain treatment, it comes out that an indirect cannabino-mimetic had been extensively used (and sometimes overused) for more than a century.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / chemistry
  • Acetaminophen / history
  • Acetaminophen / pharmacology*
  • Acetaminophen / therapeutic use*
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / chemistry
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / history
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / pharmacology*
  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy*

Substances

  • Analgesics, Non-Narcotic
  • Acetaminophen