Prolonged exposure of rats to the synthetic cannabinoid receptor ligand, CP-55,940 (0.4 mg/kg, i.p. for 11 days), induced tolerance to analgesia, to the reduction in spontaneous locomotor activity and the incidence of splayed hind limbs. One hour after the last injection on day 11, the rats were killed and in situ hybridization was used to investigate the effect of treatment on G-protein alpha-subunit expression throughout the brain. Chronic cannabinoid exposure markedly reduced G alpha(s), G alpha(i) and G alpha(o) mRNA levels. The message for the alpha(s)-subunit was decreased in all the brain areas containing the basal autoradiographic signal; the decrease ranging from 25% in the thalamus to 45% in the mesencephalon. Also the basal G alpha(i) expression was reduced in tolerant rats showing the greatest decrease in the forebrain (63%) in the cerebellum (58%) and in the mesencephalon (38%). The reduction in G alpha(o) expression (25%) was more localized, being present only in the rostral portion of the brain (cortex, striatum and olfactory area). The alterations in alpha-subunits gene expression were not followed by any change in the amount of proteins. Our results indicate that, besides the receptor modification, alteration to the G-protein expression could be a molecular event associated with the development of cannabinoid tolerance.