The endocannabinoid system in normal and pathological brain ageing

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Dec 5;367(1607):3326-41. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0388.


The role of endocannabinoids as inhibitory retrograde transmitters is now widely known and intensively studied. However, endocannabinoids also influence neuronal activity by exerting neuroprotective effects and regulating glial responses. This review centres around this less-studied area, focusing on the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the protective effect of the cannabinoid system in brain ageing. The progression of ageing is largely determined by the balance between detrimental, pro-ageing, largely stochastic processes, and the activity of the homeostatic defence system. Experimental evidence suggests that the cannabinoid system is part of the latter system. Cannabinoids as regulators of mitochondrial activity, as anti-oxidants and as modulators of clearance processes protect neurons on the molecular level. On the cellular level, the cannabinoid system regulates the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and neurogenesis. Neuroinflammatory processes contributing to the progression of normal brain ageing and to the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases are suppressed by cannabinoids, suggesting that they may also influence the ageing process on the system level. In good agreement with the hypothesized beneficial role of cannabinoid system activity against brain ageing, it was shown that animals lacking CB1 receptors show early onset of learning deficits associated with age-related histological and molecular changes. In preclinical models of neurodegenerative disorders, cannabinoids show beneficial effects, but the clinical evidence regarding their efficacy as therapeutic tools is either inconclusive or still missing.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / pathology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cannabinoids / metabolism
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Endocannabinoids / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / drug therapy
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / metabolism
  • Neurogenesis
  • Neuroglia / drug effects
  • Neuroglia / metabolism
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Neuroprotective Agents / pharmacology
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism
  • Synaptic Transmission


  • Cannabinoids
  • Endocannabinoids
  • Neuroprotective Agents
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1