The mechanism by which cannabinoid compounds produce their effects in the rat brain was evaluated in this investigation. Cannabinoid receptors, quantitated by [3H]CP-55,940 binding, were found in greatest abundance in the rat cortex, cerebellum, hippocampus, and striatum, with smaller but significant binding also found in the hypothalamus, brainstem, and spinal cord. Using rat brain slice preparations, we evaluated the effect of desacetyllevonantradol on basal and forskolin-stimulated cyclic AMP accumulation in the regions exhibiting the greatest cannabinoid receptor density. Desacetyllevonantradol (10 microM) reduced cyclic AMP levels in the hippocampus, frontal cortex, and striatum. In the cerebellum, however, the response to desacetyllevonantradol was biphasic with cyclic AMP accumulation being decreased at lower and increased at higher concentrations. Desacetyllevonantradol reduced cyclic AMP accumulation in isoproterenol-stimulated slices in the cortex and cerebellum, but not in the hippocampus. Cells that responded to vasoactive intestinal peptide with an increase in cyclic AMP accumulation in the hippocampus and cortex also responded to desacetyllevonantradol. The modulation of cyclic AMP accumulation by desacetyllevonantradol could be attenuated following stereotaxic implantation of pertussis toxin, supporting the involvement of a G protein in the cannabinoid response in the brain. However, other actions of cannabinoid compounds may also affect the cyclic AMP levels in brain slice preparations.