Multiple functions of endocannabinoid signaling in the brain

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2012:35:529-58. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150420. Epub 2012 Apr 17.


Despite being regarded as a hippie science for decades, cannabinoid research has finally found its well-deserved position in mainstream neuroscience. A series of groundbreaking discoveries revealed that endocannabinoid molecules are as widespread and important as conventional neurotransmitters such as glutamate or GABA, yet they act in profoundly unconventional ways. We aim to illustrate how uncovering the molecular, anatomical, and physiological characteristics of endocannabinoid signaling has revealed new mechanistic insights into several fundamental phenomena in synaptic physiology. First, we summarize unexpected advances in the molecular complexity of biogenesis and inactivation of the two endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Then, we show how these new metabolic routes are integrated into well-known intracellular signaling pathways. These endocannabinoid-producing signalosomes operate in phasic and tonic modes, thereby differentially governing homeostatic, short-term, and long-term synaptic plasticity throughout the brain. Finally, we discuss how cell type- and synapse-specific refinement of endocannabinoid signaling may explain the characteristic behavioral effects of cannabinoids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arachidonic Acids / metabolism*
  • Arachidonic Acids / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Glycerides / metabolism*
  • Glycerides / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Polyunsaturated Alkamides / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / physiology
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology


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