Labour and premature delivery differentially affect the expression of the endocannabinoid system in the human placenta

Histochem Cell Biol. 2023 Dec;160(6):577-593. doi: 10.1007/s00418-023-02236-y. Epub 2023 Sep 26.


Plasma concentrations of N-arachidonyletholamine (AEA), N-oleoylethanolamide (OEA) and N-palmitoylethanolamide (PEA) increase at term and can predict when a woman is likely to go into labour. We hypothesised that increased plasma AEA concentrations in women in preterm and term labour might also be increased and have a function in the placenta at the end of pregnancy. Here we examined the expression of the N-acylethanolamine-modulating enzymes fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamine-specific phospholipase-D (NAPE-PLD) and of the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) in the placenta and their activation in an in vitro model of the third-trimester placenta to determine if those expressions change with labour and have functional significance. Expression of CB1, CB2, FAAH and NAPE-PLD was examined by immunohistochemistry (IHC) and RT-qPCR in placental samples obtained from four patient groups: preterm not in labour (PTNL), term not in labour (TNL), preterm in labour (PTL) and term in labour (TL). Additionally, the effects of AEA on a third-trimester human cell line (TCL-1) were evaluated. All ECS components were present in the third-trimester placenta, with NAPE-PLD and CB2 being the key modulated proteins in terms of expression. Functionally, AEA reduced TCL-1 cell numbers through the actions of the CB2 receptor whilst CB1 maintained placental integrity through the expression of the transcription regulators histone deacetylase 3, thyroid hormone receptor β 1 and the modulation of 5α reductase type 1. The placenta in the third trimester and at term is different from the placenta in the first trimester with respect to the expression of CB1, CB2, FAAH and NAPE-PLD, and the expression of these proteins is affected by labour. These data suggest that early perturbation of some ECS components in the placenta may cause AEA-induced PTL and thus PTB.

Keywords: Cannabinoid receptor; Endocannabinoid; Fatty acid amide hydrolase; Labour; Placenta; Prematurity; Trophoblast.

MeSH terms

  • Endocannabinoids* / metabolism
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Placenta* / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Trimester, First / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / metabolism


  • Endocannabinoids
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid