The endocannabinoid system in anxiety, fear memory and habituation

J Psychopharmacol. 2012 Jan;26(1):23-39. doi: 10.1177/0269881111408958. Epub 2011 Jul 18.


Evidence for the involvement of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in anxiety and fear has been accumulated, providing leads for novel therapeutic approaches. In anxiety, a bidirectional influence of the ECS has been reported, whereby anxiolytic and anxiogenic responses have been obtained after both increases and decreases of the endocannabinoid tone. The recently developed genetic tools have revealed different but complementary roles for the cannabinoid type 1 (CB1) receptor on GABAergic and glutamatergic neuronal populations. This dual functionality, together with the plasticity of CB1 receptor expression, particularly on GABAergic neurons, as induced by stressful and rewarding experiences, gives the ECS a unique regulatory capacity for maintaining emotional homeostasis. However, the promiscuity of the endogenous ligands of the CB1 receptor complicates the interpretation of experimental data concerning ECS and anxiety. In fear memory paradigms, the ECS is mostly involved in the two opposing processes of reconsolidation and extinction of the fear memory. Whereas ECS activation deteriorates reconsolidation, proper extinction depends on intact CB1 receptor signalling. Thus, both for anxiety and fear memory processing, endocannabinoid signalling may ensure an appropriate reaction to stressful events. Therefore, the ECS can be considered as a regulatory buffer system for emotional responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / metabolism*
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators / metabolism*
  • Endocannabinoids*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism


  • Cannabinoid Receptor Modulators
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1