Expression of central and peripheral cannabinoid receptors in human immune tissues and leukocyte subpopulations

Eur J Biochem. 1995 Aug 15;232(1):54-61. doi: 10.1111/j.1432-1033.1995.tb20780.x.


Two proteins with seven transmembrane-spanning domains typical of guanosine-nucleotide-binding-protein-coupled receptors have been identified as cannabinoid receptors; the central cannabinoid receptor, CB1, and the peripheral cannabinoid receptor, CB2, initially described in rat brain and spleen, respectively. Here, we report the distribution patterns for both CB1 and CB2 transcripts in human immune cells and in several human tissues, as analysed using a highly sensitive and quantitative PCR-based method. CB1 was mainly expressed in the central nervous system and, to a lower extent, in several peripheral tissues such as adrenal gland, heart, lung, prostate, uterus, ovary, testis, bone marrow, thymus and tonsils. In contrast, the CB2 gene, which is not expressed in the brain, was particularly abundant in immune tissues, with an expression level 10-100-fold higher than that of CB1. Although CB2 mRNA was also detected in some other peripheral tissues, its level remained very low. In spleen and tonsils, the CB2 mRNA content was equivalent to that of CB1 mRNA in the central nervous system. Among the main human blood cell subpopulations, the distribution pattern of the CB2 mRNA displayed important variations. The rank order of CB2 mRNA levels in these cells was B-cells > natural killer cells >> monocytes > polymorphonuclear neutrophil cells > T8 cells > T4 cells. The same rank order was also established in human cell lines belonging to the myeloid, monocytic and lymphoid lineages. The prevailing expression of the CB2 gene in immune tissues was confirmed by Northern-blot analysis. In addition, the expression of the CB2 protein was demonstrated by an immunohistological analysis performed on tonsil sections using specific anti-(human CB2) IgG; this experiment showed that CB2 expression was restricted to B-lymphocyte-enriched areas of the mantle of secondary lymphoid follicles. These results suggest that (a) CB1 and CB2 can be considered as tissue-selective antigens of the central nervous system and immune system, respectively, and (b) cannabinoids may exert specific receptor-mediated actions on the immune system through the CB2 receptor.

MeSH terms

  • Blotting, Northern
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Leukocytes / metabolism*
  • Lymphoid Tissue / metabolism*
  • Organ Specificity
  • RNA, Messenger / analysis
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB2*
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid
  • Receptors, Drug / biosynthesis*


  • Cnr2 protein, rat
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB2
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid
  • Receptors, Drug