Endocannabinoids and Their Implications for Epilepsy

“This review covers the main features of a newly discovered intercellular signaling system in which endogenous ligands of the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, or endocannabinoids, serve as retrograde messengers that enable a cell to control the strength of its own synaptic inputs. Endocannabinoids are released by bursts of action potentials, including events resembling interictal spikes, and probably by seizures as well. Activation of cannabinoid receptors has been implicated in neuroprotection against excitotoxicity and can help explain the anticonvulsant properties of cannabinoids that have been known since antiquity.”

“Cannabis in its various forms, including marijuana and hashish, is produced from the flowers and leaves of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. Through their primary psychoactive ingredient, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), these drugs affect the central nervous system by activating specific membrane-bound receptors. The primary brain receptors, cannabinoid receptors type 1 (CB1), are G protein–coupled, seven-transmembrane domain proteins that share numerous similarities with heterotrimeric G protein–coupled receptors for conventional neurotransmitters such as γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. The CB1s bind THC with a high degree of selectivity and are heterogeneously distributed throughout the brain. Inasmuch as THC is a plant-derived compound not produced in mammals, endogenous ligands must exist for the cannabinoid receptor, that is, endocannabinoids. Indeed, several endogenous ligands for CB1 have been discovered, with anandamide being the first. Anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG), are thought to be the major brain endocannabinoids, with regional differences in which one or the other predominates. Endocannabinoids have been strongly implicated in a growing variety of physiologic phenomena, including regulation of eating, anxiety, pain, extinction of aversive memories, and neuroprotection. Potent agonists and antagonists for CB1 exist and may serve as the foundation of new therapeutic strategies for treating pathologies. The voluminous work summarized here has been extensively covered in recent reviews on cannabinoid neurochemistry and pharmacology as well as neurophysiology. This review focuses on the neurophysiology of the endocannabinoid systems.”


From what is known about their synthesis and release, endocannabinoids should be produced under many conditions of increased neuronal excitability and specific intercellular signaling. For example, an epileptic seizure, with its large swings in transmembrane voltage, increases in intracellular calcium, and marked release of neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine and glutamate, should prominently release endocannabinoids. Indeed, seizures induced by kainic acid (a glutamate agonist) increase hippocampal levels of anandamide in normal and wild-type mice. Intriguingly, CB1 knockout mice and normal mice treated with a CB1 antagonist had more pronounced seizures and more severe excitotoxic cell death than untreated normal mice. Although the detailed mechanisms of neuroprotection have not been worked out, the rapid increases in expression of the immediate early genes, c-fos and zipf268, and subsequent increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) normally induced by kainic acid, were absent in the CB1 knockout mice. The results complement previous evidence that exogenous cannabinoids can be neuroprotective and show that CB1 activation by seizure-induced release of endocannabinoids also is normally neuroprotective.”

“The important new directions being opened by investigations of endocannabinoids underscore the prescient opinion of Robert Christison, who, in 1848, noting its various beneficial effects, argued that cannabis “is a remedy which deserves a more extensive inquiry…””


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