The psychoactive component of the cannabis resin and flowers, delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was first isolated in 1964, and at least 70 other structurally related 'phytocannabinoid' compounds have since been identified. The serendipitous identification of a G-protein-coupled cannabinoid receptor at which THC is active in the brain heralded an explosion in cannabinoid research. Elements of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) comprise the cannabinoid receptors, a family of nascent lipid ligands, the 'endocannabinoids' and the machinery for their biosynthesis and metabolism. The function of the ECS is thus defined by modulation of these receptors, in particular, by two of the best-described ligands, 2-arachidonoyl glycerol and anandamide (arachidonylethanolamide). Research on the ECS has recently aroused enormous interest not only for the physiological functions, but also for the promising therapeutic potentials of drugs interfering with the activity of cannabinoid receptors. Many of the former relate to stress-recovery systems and to the maintenance of homeostatic balance. Among other functions, the ECS is involved in neuroprotection, modulation of nociception, regulation of motor activity, neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity and the control of certain phases of memory processing. In addition, the ECS acts to modulate the immune and inflammatory responses and to maintain a positive energy balance. This theme issue aims to provide the reader with an overview of ECS pharmacology, followed by discussions on the pivotal role of this system in the modulation of neurogenesis in the developing and adult organism, memory processes and synaptic plasticity, as well as in pathological pain and brain ageing. The volume will conclude with discussions that address the proposed therapeutic applications of targeting the ECS for the treatment of neurodegeneration, pain and mental illness.