The endocannabinoid-CB receptor system: Importance for development and in pediatric disease.


Ester Fride

Published in Neuro endocrinology letters

February-April 2004



Endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) and their cannabinoid CB1 and CB2 receptors, are present from the early stages of gestation and play a number of vital roles for the developing organism. Although most of these data are collected from animal studies, a role for cannabinoid receptors in the developing human brain has been suggested, based on the detection of “atypically” distributed CB1 receptors in several neural pathways of the fetal brain. In addition, a role for the endocannabinoid system for the human infant is likely, since the endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoyl glycerol has been detected in human milk. Animal research indicates that the Endocannabinoid-CB1 Receptor (‘ECBR’) system fulfills a number of roles in the developing organism: 1. embryonal implantation (requires a temporary and localized reduction in anandamide); 2. in neural development (by the transient presence of CB1 receptors in white matter areas of the nervous system); 3. as a neuroprotectant (anandamide protects the developing brain from trauma-induced neuronal loss); 4. in the initiation of suckling in the newborn (where activation of the CB1 receptors in the neonatal brain is critical for survival). 5. In addition, subtle but definite deficiencies have been described in memory, motor and addictive behaviors and in higher cognitive (‘executive’) function in the human offspring as result of prenatal exposure to marihuana. Therefore, the endocanabinoid-CB1 receptor system may play a role in the development of structures which control these functions, including the nigrostriatal pathway and the prefrontal cortex. From the multitude of roles of the endocannabinoids and their receptors in the developing organism, there are two distinct stages of development, during which proper functioning of the endocannabinoid system seems to be critical for survival: embryonal implantation and neonatal milk sucking. We propose that a dysfunctional Endocannabinoid-CB1 Receptor system in infants with growth failure resulting from an inability to ingest food, may resolve the enigma of “non-organic failure-to-thrive” (NOFTT). Developmental observations suggest further that CB1 receptors develop only gradually during the postnatal period, which correlates with an insensitivity to the psychoactive effects of cannabinoid treatment in the young organism. Therefore, it is suggested that children may respond positively to medicinal applications of cannabinoids without undesirable central effects. Excellent clinical results have previously been reported in pediatric oncology and in case studies of children with severe neurological disease or brain trauma. We suggest cannabinoid treatment for children or young adults with cystic fibrosis in order to achieve an improvement of their health condition including improved food intake and reduced inflammatory exacerbations.


PMID: 15159678


Fride E. The endocannabinoid-CB receptor system: Importance for development and in pediatric disease. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 25(1-2):24-30.