Endocannabinoid Signaling in Motivation, Reward, and Addiction: Influences on Mesocorticolimbic Dopamine Function

Int Rev Neurobiol. 2015:125:257-302. doi: 10.1016/bs.irn.2015.10.004. Epub 2015 Nov 11.


Evidence suggests that the endocannabinoid system has been conserved in the animal kingdom for 500 million years, and this system influences many critical behavioral processes including associative learning, reward signaling, goal-directed behavior, motor skill learning, and action-habit transformation. Additionally, the neurotransmitter dopamine has long been recognized to play a critical role in the processing of natural rewards, as well as of motivation that regulates approach and avoidance behavior. This motivational role of dopamine neurons is also based upon the evidence provided by several studies investigating disorders of dopamine pathways such as drug addiction and Parkinson's disease. From an evolutionary point of view, individuals engage in behaviors aimed at maximizing and minimizing positive and aversive consequences, respectively. Accordingly, those with the greatest fitness have a better potential to survival. Hence, deviations from fitness can be viewed as a part of the evolutionary process by means of natural selection. Given the long evolutionary history of both the endocannabinoid and dopaminergic systems, it is plausible that they must serve as fundamental and basic modulators of physiological functions and needs. Notably, endocannabinoids regulate dopamine neuronal activity and its influence on behavioral output. The goal of this chapter is to examine the endocannabinoid influence on dopamine signaling specifically related to (i) those behavioral processes that allow us to successfully adapt to ever-changing environments (i.e., reward signaling and motivational processes) and (ii) derangements from behavioral flexibility that underpin drug addiction.

Keywords: Behavior; Dopamine; Drug addiction; Endocannabinoid; Motivation; Reward; Synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Endocannabinoids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Reward*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology


  • Endocannabinoids
  • Dopamine