The CB(1) and CB(2) cannabinoid receptors are G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) recognized by a variety of endogenous ligands and activating multiple signalling pathways. This multiplicity of ligands and intracellular transduction mechanisms supports a complex control of physiological functions by the endocannabinoid system, but requires a finely tuned regulation of the signalling events triggered on receptor activation. Here we review the diverse signalling pathways activated by the cannabinoid receptors and discuss the mechanisms allowing for specificity in the associated functional responses triggered by endogenous or exogenous ligands. At variance with the classical concept that all agonists at a given GPCR induce a similar repertoire of downstream events in all tissues, we also summarize the experimental evidence supporting the existence of functional selectivity and protean agonism at cannabinoid receptors. By placing emphasis on the ligand- or constitutive activity-dependent specifications of receptor-G protein coupling, these concepts explain how distinct cannabinoid ligands may activate specific downstream mediators. Finally, although both the diversity and specificity in cannabinoid signalling are now established in vitro, few data are available from in vivo studies. Therefore, we conclude this review by examining the experimental evidence supporting the physiological relevance of this complexity in the cannabinoid system. The ability to selectively manipulate physiological functions, through activation of defined signalling cascades, will in all likelihood help in the development of efficacious and safe cannabinoid-based therapeutics for a variety of indications.
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