Cannabinoids and opioids are known to strictly interact in many physiological and pathological functions, including addiction. The endogenous opioid system is significantly influenced by maternal or perinatal cannabinoid exposure, major changes concerning operant behaviour in adult animals. Copious data suggests that adolescence is also a particularly sensitive period of life not only for the initiation of abusing illicit drugs, but also for the effects that these drugs exert on the neural circuitries leading to drug dependence. This paper examines the role played by the age of drug exposure in the susceptibility to discriminative and reinforcing effects of both cannabinoids and opioids. We first revisited evidence of alterations in the density and functionality of mu-opioid and CB1 cannabinoid receptors in reward-related brain regions caused by either maternal, postnatal, adolescent or adult exposure to opioids and cannabinoids. Then, we reviewed behavioural evidence of the long-term consequences of exposure to opioids and cannabinoids during gestation, postnatal period, adolescence or adulthood, focusing mostly on drug discrimination and self-administration studies. Overall, evidence confirms a neurobiological convergence of the cannabinoid and opioid systems that is manifest at both receptor and behavioural levels. Although discrepant results have been reported, some data support the gateway hypothesis that adolescent cannabis exposure contributes to greater opioid intake in adulthood. However, it should be kept into consideration that in humans genetic, environmental, and social factors could influence the direct neurobiological effects of early cannabis exposure to the progression to adult drug abuse.
Keywords: Cannabinoid, opioid, self-administration, drug discrimination, vulnerability, adolescence, gateway hypothesis, reward
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