The active component of the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), produces numerous beneficial effects, including analgesia, appetite stimulation and nausea reduction, in addition to its psychotropic effects. THC mimics the action of endogenous fatty acid derivatives, referred to as endocannabinoids. The effects of THC and the endocannabinoids are mediated largely by metabotropic receptors that are distributed throughout the nervous and peripheral organ systems. There is great interest in endocannabinoids for their role in neuroplasticity as well as for therapeutic use in numerous conditions, including pain, stroke, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, fertility, neurodegenerative diseases, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and inflammatory diseases, among others. However, there has been relatively far less research on this topic in the eye and retina compared with the brain and other organ systems. The purpose of this review is to introduce the “cannabinergic” field to the retinal community. All of the fundamental work on cannabinoids has been performed in non-retinal preparations, necessitating extensive dependence on this literature for background. Happily, the retinal cannabinoid system has much in common with other regions of the central nervous system. For example, there is general agreement that cannabinoids suppress dopamine release and presynaptically reduce transmitter release from cones and bipolar cells. How these effects relate to light and dark adaptation, receptive field formation, temporal properties of ganglion cells or visual perception are unknown. The presence of multiple endocannabinoids, degradative enzymes with their bioactive metabolites, and receptors provides a broad spectrum of opportunities for basic research and to identify targets for therapeutic application to retinal diseases.
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