Multiple roles for the endocannabinoid system during the earliest stages of life: pre- and postnatal development

J Neuroendocrinol. 2008 May;20 Suppl 1:75-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2008.01670.x.


The endocannabinoid system, including its receptors (CB(1) and CB(2)), endogenous ligands ('endocannabinoids'), synthesising and degrading enzymes, as well as transporter molecules, has been detected from the earliest stages of embryonic development and throughout pre- and postnatal development. In addition, the endocannabinoids, notably 2-arachidonyl glycerol, are also present in maternal milk. During three distinct developmental stages (i.e. embryonic implantation, prenatal brain development and postnatal suckling), the endocannabinoid system appears to play an essential role for development and survival. Thus, during early pregnancy, successful embryonic passage through the oviduct and implantation into the uterus both require critical enzymatic control of optimal anandamide levels at the appropriate times and sites. During foetal life, the cannabinoid CB(1) receptor plays a major role in brain development, regulating neural progenitor differentiation into neurones and glia and guiding axonal migration and synaptogenesis. Postnatally, CB(1) receptor blockade interferes with the initiation of milk suckling in mouse pups, by inducing oral motor weakness, which exposes a critical role for CB(1) receptors in the initiation of milk suckling by neonates, possibly by interfering with innervation of the tongue muscles. Manipulating the endocannabinoid system by pre- and/or postnatal administration of cannabinoids or maternal marijuana consumption, has significant, yet subtle effects on the offspring. Thus, alterations in the dopamine, GABA and endocannabinoid systems have been reported while enhanced drug seeking behaviour and impaired executive (prefrontal cortical) function have also been observed. The relatively mild nature of the disruptive effects of prenatal cannabinoids may be understood in the framework of the intricate timing requirements and frequently biphasic effects of the (endo)cannabinoids. In conclusion, the endocannabinoid system plays several key roles in pre- and postnatal development. Future studies should further clarify the mechanisms involved and provide a better understanding of the adverse effects of prenatal exposure, in order to design strategies for the treatment of conditions such as infertility, mental retardation and failure-to-thrive.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Animals, Suckling
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators / physiology*
  • Eating / genetics
  • Eating / physiology
  • Embryonic Development / genetics
  • Embryonic Development / physiology*
  • Endocannabinoids*
  • Growth and Development / genetics
  • Growth and Development / physiology
  • Humans
  • Nervous System / embryology
  • Nervous System / growth & development
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / genetics
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / physiology*


  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid