Endocannabinoids are substances produced from within the body that activate cannabinoid receptors. After the discovery of the first cannabinoid receptor in 1988, scientists began searching for an endogenous ligand for the receptor.
Types of endocannabinoid ligands
Arachidonoylethanolamine (Anandamide or AEA)
In 1992, in Raphael Mechoulam's lab, the first such compound was identified as arachidonoyl ethanolamine and named anandamide, a name derived from the Sanskrit word for bliss and -amide. Anandamide is derived from arachidonic acid. It has a pharmacology similar to THC, although its chemical structure is different. Anandamide binds to the central (CB1) and, to a lesser extent, peripheral (CB2) cannabinoid receptors, where it acts as a partial agonist. Anandamide is about as potent as THC at the CB1 receptor. Anandamide is found in nearly all tissues in a wide range of animals. Anandamide has also been found in plants, including small amounts in chocolate.
Two analogs of anandamide, 7,10,13,16-docosatetraenoylethanolamide and homo-γ-linolenoylethanolamine, have similar pharmacology. All of these are members of a family of signalling lipids called N-acylethanolamines, which also includes the noncannabimimetic palmitoylethanolamide and oleoylethanolamide, which possess anti-inflammatory and orexigenic effects, respectively. Many N-acylethanolamines have also been identified in plant seeds and in molluscs.
Another endocannabinoid, 2-arachidonoylglycerol, binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors with similar affinity, acting as a full agonist at both. 2-AG is present at significantly higher concentrations in the brain than anandamide, and there is some controversy over whether 2-AG rather than anandamide is chiefly responsible for endocannabinoid signalling in vivo. In particular, one in vitro study suggests that 2-AG is capable of stimulating higher G-protein activation than anandamide, although the physiological implications of this finding are not yet known.
2-Arachidonyl glyceryl ether (noladin ether)
In 2001, a third, ether-type endocannabinoid, 2-arachidonyl glyceryl ether (noladin ether), was isolated from porcine brain. Prior to this discovery, it had been synthesized as a stable analog of 2-AG; indeed, some controversy remains over its classification as an endocannabinoid, as another group failed to detect the substance at "any appreciable amount" in the brains of several different mammalian species. It binds to the CB1 cannabinoid receptor (Ki = 21.2 nmol/L) and causes sedation, hypothermia, intestinal immobility, and mild antinociception in mice. It binds primarily to the CB1 receptor, and only weakly to the CB2 receptor.
N-Arachidonoyl dopamine (NADA)
Discovered in 2000, NADA preferentially binds to the CB1 receptor. Like anandamide, NADA is also an agonist for the vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (TRPV1), a member of the vanilloid receptor family.
A fifth endocannabinoid, virodhamine, or O-arachidonoyl-ethanolamine (OAE), was discovered in June 2002. Although it is a full agonist at CB2 and a partial agonist at CB1, it behaves as a CB1 antagonist in vivo. In rats, virodhamine was found to be present at comparable or slightly lower concentrations than anandamide in the brain, but 2- to 9-fold higher concentrations peripherally.
Recent evidence has highlighted lysophosphatidylinositol as the endogenous ligand to novel endocannabinoid receptor GPR55, making it a strong contender as the sixth endocannabinoid.
Endocannabinoids serve as intercellular 'lipid messengers', signaling molecules that are released from one cell and activating the cannabinoid receptors present on other nearby cells. Although in this intercellular signaling role they are similar to the well-known monoamine neurotransmitters, such as acetylcholine and dopamine, endocannabinoids differ in numerous ways from them. For instance, they are used in retrograde signaling between neurons. Furthermore, endocannabinoids are lipophilic molecules that are not very soluble in water. They are not stored in vesicles, and exist as integral constituents of the membrane bilayers that make up cells. They are believed to be synthesized 'on-demand' rather than made and stored for later use. The mechanisms and enzymes underlying the biosynthesis of endocannabinoids remain elusive and continue to be an area of active research.
The endocannabinoid 2-AG has been found in bovine and human maternal milk.
Conventional neurotransmitters are released from a ‘presynaptic’ cell and activate appropriate receptors on a ‘postsynaptic’ cell, where presynaptic and postsynaptic designate the sending and receiving sides of a synapse, respectively. Endocannabinoids, on the other hand, are described as retrograde transmitters because they most commonly travel ‘backward’ against the usual synaptic transmitter flow. They are, in effect, released from the postsynaptic cell and act on the presynaptic cell, where the target receptors are densely concentrated on axonal terminals in the zones from which conventional neurotransmitters are released. Activation of cannabinoid receptors temporarily reduces the amount of conventional neurotransmitter released. This endocannabinoid mediated system permits the postsynaptic cell to control its own incoming synaptic traffic. The ultimate effect on the endocannabinoid-releasing cell depends on the nature of the conventional transmitter being controlled. For instance, when the release of the inhibitory transmitter GABA is reduced, the net effect is an increase in the excitability of the endocannabinoid-releasing cell. On the converse, when release of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate is reduced, the net effect is a decrease in the excitability of the endocannabinoid-releasing cell.
Endocannabinoids are hydrophobic molecules. They cannot travel unaided for long distances in the aqueous medium surrounding the cells from which they are released, and therefore act locally on nearby target cells. Hence, although emanating diffusely from their source cells, they have much more restricted spheres of influence than do hormones, which can affect cells throughout the body.