Research into the endocannabinoid signaling system has grown exponentially in recent years following the discovery of cannabinoid receptors (CB) and their endogenous ligands, such as anandamide (AEA) and 2- arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Important advances have been made in our understanding of the endocannabinoid signaling system in various aspects of alcoholism, including alcohol-seeking behavior. Alcohol increases the synthesis or impairs the degradation of endocannabinoids, leading to a locally elevated endocannabinoid tone within the brain. Elevated endocannabinoid tone might be expected to result in compensatory down-regulation of CB1 receptors or dampened signal transduction. Following release, endocannabinoids diffuse back to the presynaptic neuron where they act as short-range modulators of synaptic activity by altering neurotransmitter release and synaptic plasticity. Mice treated with the CB1 receptor antagonist SR141716A (rimonabant) or homozygous for a deletion of the CB1 receptor gene exhibit reduced voluntary alcohol intake. CB1 knockout mice also show increased alcohol sensitivity, withdrawal, and reduced conditioned place preference. Conversely, activation of CB1 receptor promotes alcohol intake. Recent studies also suggest that elevated endocannabinoid tone due to impaired degradation contributes to high alcohol preference and self-administration. These effects are reversed by local administration of rimonabant, suggesting the participation of the endocannabinoid signaling system in high alcohol preference and self-administration. These recent advances will be reviewed with an emphasis on the endocannabinoid signaling system for possible therapeutic interventions of alcoholism.
Keywords: Alcoholism, endocannabinoids, synaptic plasticity, reward, FAAH, CB1 receptors, alcohol-drinking behavio, therapy
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