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Keywords:

  • addiction;
  • anandamide;
  • conditioned place preference;
  • drug discrimination;
  • drug self-administration;
  • electrical brain reward;
  • FAAH;
  • gateway hypothesis;
  • microdialysis;
  • rimonabant;
  • withdrawal

The endogenous cannabinoid system is involved in numerous physiological and neuropsychological functions. Medications that target this system hold promise for the treatment of a wide variety of disorders. However, as reward is one of the most prominent of these functions, medications that activate this system must be evaluated for abuse potential. Meanwhile, cannabis is already being used chronically by millions of people, many of whom eventually seek treatment for cannabis dependence. Therefore, there is a need for procedures that can be used to: (i) better understand the mechanisms of cannabinoid reward; (ii) evaluate the abuse potential of new medications; and (iii) evaluate the effectiveness of medications developed for treating cannabis dependence. Animal models of cannabinoid reward provide a means of accomplishing these goals. In this review, we briefly describe and evaluate these models, their advantages and their shortcomings. Special emphasis is placed on intravenous cannabinoid self-administration in squirrel monkeys, a valid, reliable and flexible model that we have developed over the past decade. Although the conditions under which cannabinoid drugs have rewarding effects may be more restricted than with other drugs of abuse such as cocaine and heroin, work with these models indicates that cannabinoid reward involves similar brain mechanisms and produces the same kinds of reward-related behaviour. By continuing to use these animal models as tools in the development of new medications, it should be possible to take advantage of the potential benefits provided by the endocannabinoid system while minimizing its potential for harm.

This article is part of a themed issue on Cannabinoids. To view the editorial for this themed issue visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-5381.2010.00831.x