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Mechanism of action
For a review of the mechanisms behind endocannabinoid synaptic transmission, see Endocannabinoid system.
The actions of THC result from its partial agonist activity at the cannabinoid receptor CB1 (Ki = 10 nM), located mainly in the central nervous system, and the CB2 receptor (Ki = 24 nM), mainly expressed in cells of the immune system. The psychoactive effects of THC are primarily mediated by the activation of cannabinoid receptors, which result in a decrease in the concentration of the second messenger molecule cAMP through inhibition of adenylate cyclase.
The presence of these specialized cannabinoid receptors in the brain led researchers to the discovery of endocannabinoids, such as anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glyceride (2-AG). THC targets receptors in a manner far less selective than endocannabinoid molecules released during retrograde signaling, as the drug has a relatively low cannabinoid receptor efficacy and affinity. In populations of low cannabinoid receptor density, THC may act to antagonize endogenous agonists that possess greater receptor efficacy. THC is a lipophilic molecule and may bind non-specifically to a variety of entities in the brain and body, such as adipose tissue (fat).[
Due to its partial agonistic activity, THC appears to result in greater downregulation of cannabinoid receptors than endocannabinoids, further limiting its efficacy over other cannabinoids. While tolerance may limit the maximal effects of certain drugs, evidence suggests that tolerance develops irregularly for different effects with greater resistance for primary over side-effects, and may actually serve to enhance the drug’s therapeutic window. However, this form of tolerance appears to be irregular throughout mouse brain areas. THC, as well as other cannabinoids that contain a phenol group, possesses mild antioxidant activity sufficient to protect neurons against oxidative stress, such as that produced by glutamate-induced excitotoxicity.
THC is metabolized mainly to 11-OH-THC by the body. This metabolite is still psychoactive and is further oxidized to 11-nor-9-carboxy-THC (THC-COOH). In humans and animals, more than 100 metabolites could be identified, but 11-OH-THC and THC-COOH are the dominating metabolites. Metabolism occurs mainly in the liver by cytochrome P450 enzymes CYP2C9, CYP2C19, CYP2D6, and CYP3A4 More than 55% of THC is excreted in the feces and ≈20% in the urine. The main metabolite in urine is the ester of glucuronic acid and THC-COOH and free THC-COOH. In the feces, mainly 11-OH-THC was detected.