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Therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in CNS disease
The major psychoactive constituent of Cannabis sativa, delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta(9)-THC), and endogenous cannabinoid ligands, such as anandamide, signal through G-protein-coupled cannabinoid receptors localised to regions of the brain associated with important neurological processes. Signalling is mostly inhibitory and suggests a role for cannabinoids as therapeutic agents in CNS disease where inhibition of neurotransmitter release would be beneficial.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that patients with disorders such as multiple sclerosis smoke cannabis to relieve disease-related symptoms. Cannabinoids can alleviate tremor and spasticity in animal models of multiple sclerosis, and clinical trials of the use of these compounds for these symptoms are in progress. The cannabinoid nabilone is currently licensed for use as an antiemetic agent in chemotherapy-induced emesis.
Evidence suggests that cannabinoids may prove useful in Parkinson's disease by inhibiting the excitotoxic neurotransmitter glutamate and counteracting oxidative damage to dopaminergic neurons. The inhibitory effect of cannabinoids on reactive oxygen species, glutamate and tumour necrosis factor suggests that they may be potent neuroprotective agents. Dexanabinol (HU-211), a synthetic cannabinoid, is currently being assessed in clinical trials for traumatic brain injury and stroke.
Animal models of mechanical, thermal and noxious pain suggest that cannabinoids may be effective analgesics. Indeed, in clinical trials of postoperative and cancer pain and pain associated with spinal cord injury, cannabinoids have proven more effective than placebo but may be less effective than existing therapies.
Dronabinol, a commercially available form of delta(9)-THC, has been used successfully for increasing appetite in patients with HIV wasting disease, and cannabinoid receptor antagonists may reduce obesity. Acute adverse effects following cannabis usage include sedation and anxiety. These effects are usually transient and may be less severe than those that occur with existing therapeutic agents. The use of nonpsychoactive cannabinoids such as cannabidiol and dexanabinol may allow the dissociation of unwanted psychoactive effects from potential therapeutic benefits.
The existence of other cannabinoid receptors may provide novel therapeutic targets that are independent of CB(1) receptors (at which most currently available cannabinoids act) and the development of compounds that are not associated with CB(1) receptor-mediated adverse effects. Further understanding of the most appropriate route of delivery and the pharmacokinetics of agents that act via the endocannabinoid system may also reduce adverse effects and increase the efficacy of cannabinoid treatment.
This review highlights recent advances in understanding of the endocannabinoid system and indicates CNS disorders that may benefit from the therapeutic effects of cannabinoid treatment. Where applicable, reference is made to ongoing clinical trials of cannabinoids to alleviate symptoms of these disorders.
Source: By Croxford JL. Therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in CNS disease. CNS Drugs.  2003;17(3):179-202.