Endocannabinoid system: An overview of its potential in current medical practice.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a lipid signalling system, comprising of the endogenous cannabis-like ligands (endocannabinoids) anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), which derive from arachidonic acid.
These bind to a family of G-protein-coupled receptors, called CB1 and CB2. The cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1R) is distributed in brain areas associated with motor control, emotional responses, motivated behaviour and energy homeostasis.
In the periphery, the same receptor is expressed in the adipose tissue, pancreas, liver, GI tract, skeletal muscles, heart and the reproduction system. The CB2R is mainly expressed in the immune system regulating its functions. Endocannabinoids are synthesized and released upon demand in a receptor-dependent way. They act as retrograde signalling messengers in GABAergic and glutamatergic synapses and as modulators of postsynaptic transmission, interacting with other neurotransmitters. Endocannabinoids are transported into cells by a specific uptake system and degraded by the enzymes fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL).
The ECS is involved in various pathophysiological conditions in central and peripheral tissues. It is implicated in the hormonal regulation of food intake, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune, behavioral, antiproliferative and mammalian reproduction functions. Recent advances have correlated the ECS with drug addiction and alcoholism. The growing number of preclinical and clinical data on ECS modulators is bound to result in novel therapeutic approaches for a number of diseases currently treated inadequately. The ECS dysregulation has been correlated to obesity and metabolic syndrome pathogenesis. Rimonabant is the first CB1 blocker launched to treat cardiometabolic risk factors in obese and overweight patients.
Phase III clinical trials showed the drug’s ability to regulate intra-abdominal fat tissue levels, lipidemic, glycemic and inflammatory parameters. However, safety conerns have led to its withrawal. The role of endocannabinoids in mammalian reproduction is an emerging research area given their implication in fertilization, preimplantation embryo and spermatogenesis.
The relevant preclinical data on endocannabinoid signalling open up new perspectives as a target to improve infertility and reproductive health in humans.
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