Endocannabinoid tone versus constitutive activity of cannabinoid receptors

Br J Pharmacol. 2011 Aug;163(7):1329-43. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01364.x.


This review evaluates the cellular mechanisms of constitutive activity of the cannabinoid (CB) receptors, its reversal by inverse agonists, and discusses the pitfalls and problems in the interpretation of the research data. The notion is presented that endogenously produced anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) serve as autocrine or paracrine stimulators of the CB receptors, giving the appearance of constitutive activity. It is proposed that one cannot interpret inverse agonist studies without inference to the receptors' environment vis-à-vis the endocannabinoid agonists which themselves are highly lipophilic compounds with a preference for membranes. The endocannabinoid tone is governed by a combination of synthetic pathways and inactivation involving transport and degradation. The synthesis and degradation of 2-AG is well characterized, and 2-AG has been strongly implicated in retrograde signalling in neurons. Data implicating endocannabinoids in paracrine regulation have been described. Endocannabinoid ligands can traverse the cell's interior and potentially be stored on fatty acid-binding proteins (FABPs). Molecular modelling predicts that the endocannabinoids derived from membrane phospholipids can laterally diffuse to enter the CB receptor from the lipid bilayer. Considering that endocannabinoid signalling to CB receptors is a much more likely scenario than is receptor activation in the absence of agonist ligands, researchers are advised to refrain from assuming constitutive activity except for experimental models known to be devoid of endocannabinoid ligands.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arachidonic Acids / metabolism*
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists*
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators / metabolism*
  • Endocannabinoids*
  • Glycerides / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Polyunsaturated Alkamides / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / metabolism*


  • Arachidonic Acids
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Glycerides
  • Ligands
  • Polyunsaturated Alkamides
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid
  • glyceryl 2-arachidonate
  • anandamide