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Endocannabinoid System And Pain: An Introduction

James J. Burston, Stephen G. Woodhams

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The endocannabinoid (EC) system consists of two main receptors: cannabinoid type 1 receptor cannabinoid receptors are found in both the central nervous system (CNS) and periphery, whereas the cannabinoid type 2 receptor cannabinoid receptor is found principally in the immune system and to a lesser extent in the CNS. The EC family consists of two classes of well characterised ligands; the N-acyl ethanolamines, such as N-arachidonoyl ethanolamide or anandamide (AEA), and the monoacylglycerols, such as 2-arachidonoyl glycerol. The various synthetic and catabolic pathways for these enzymes have been (with the exception of AEA synthesis) elucidated. To date, much work has examined the role of EC in nociceptive processing and the potential of targeting the EC system to produce analgesia. Cannabinoid receptors and ligands are found at almost every level of the pain pathway from peripheral sites, such as peripheral nerves and immune cells, to central integration sites such as the spinal cord, and higher brain regions such as the periaqueductal grey and the rostral ventrolateral medulla associated with descending control of pain. EC have been shown to induce analgesia in preclinical models of acute nociception and chronic pain states. The purpose of this review is to critically evaluate the evidence for the role of EC in the pain pathway and the therapeutic potential of EC to produce analgesia. We also review the present clinical work conducted with EC, and examine whether targeting the EC system might offer a novel target for analgesics, and also potentially disease-modifying interventions for pathophysiological pain states.