The endocannabinoid system is modulated in reward and homeostatic brain regions following diet-induced obesity in rats: a cluster analysis approach

Eur J Nutr. 2021 Dec;60(8):4621-4633. doi: 10.1007/s00394-021-02613-0. Epub 2021 Jun 24.


Objectives: Increased availability of high-calorie palatable food in most countries has resulted in overconsumption of these foods, suggesting that excessive eating is driven by pleasure, rather than metabolic need. The behavior contributes to the rise in eating disorders, obesity, and associated pathologies like diabetes, cardiac disease, and cancers. The mesocorticolimbic dopamine and homeostatic circuits are interconnected and play a central role in palatable food intake. The endocannabinoid system is expressed in these circuits and represents a potent regulator of feeding, but the impact of an obesogenic diet on its expression is not fully known.

Methods: Food intake and body weight were recorded in male Wistar rats over a 6-week free-choice regimen of high fat and sugar; transcriptional regulations of the endocannabinoid system were examined post-mortem in brain reward regions (prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area, and arcuate nucleus). K-means cluster analysis was used to classify animals based on individual sensitivity to obesity and palatable food intake. Endocannabinoid levels were quantified in the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens. Gene expression in dopamine and homeostatic systems, including ghrelin and leptin receptors, and classical homeostatic peptides, were also investigated.

Results: The free-choice high-fat -and sugar diet induced hyperphagia and obesity in rats. Cluster analysis revealed that the propensity to develop obesity and excessive palatable food intake was differently associated with dopamine and endocannabinoid system gene expression in reward and homeostatic brain regions. CB2 receptor mRNA was increased in the nucleus accumbens of high sugar consumers, whereas CB1 receptor mRNA was decreased in obesity prone rats.

Conclusions: Transcriptional data are consistent with observations of altered dopamine function in rodents that have access to an obesogenic diet and point to cannabinoid receptors as GPCR targets involved in neuroplasticity mechanisms associated with maladaptive intake of palatable food.

Keywords: Diet-induced obesity; Dopamine; Endocannabinoids; Gene expression; Mass spectrometry; Reward.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Diet*
  • Eating
  • Endocannabinoids*
  • Male
  • Obesity / etiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Reward


  • Endocannabinoids