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Neuropharmacology of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS): Focus on the Rewarding and Reinforcing Properties of Cannabimimetics and Amphetamine-Like Stimulants

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      New psychoactive substances (NPS) are a heterogeneous and rapidly evolving class of molecules available on the global illicit drug market (e.g smart shops, internet, “dark net”) as a substitute for controlled substances. The use of NPS, mainly consumed along with other drugs of abuse and/or alcohol, has resulted in a significantly growing number of mortality and emergency admissions for overdoses, as reported by several poison centers from all over the world. The fact that the number of NPS have more than doubled over the last 10 years, is a critical challenge to governments, the scientific community, and civil society [EMCDDA (European Drug Report), 2014; UNODC, 2014b; Trends and developments]. The chemical structure (phenethylamines, piperazines, cathinones, tryptamines, synthetic cannabinoids) of NPS and their pharmacological and clinical effects (hallucinogenic, anesthetic, dissociative, depressant) help classify them into different categories. In the recent past, 50% of newly identified NPS have been classified as synthetic cannabinoids followed by new phenethylamines (17%) (UNODC, 2014b). Besides peripheral toxicological effects, many NPS seem to have addictive properties. Behavioral, neurochemical, and electrophysiological evidence can help in detecting them. This manuscript will review existing literature about the addictive and rewarding properties of the most popular NPS classes: cannabimimetics (JWH, HU, CP series) and amphetamine-like stimulants (amphetamine, methamphetamine, methcathinone, and MDMA analogs). Moreover, the review will include recent data from our lab which links JWH-018, a CB1 and CB2 agonist more potent than Δ9-THC, to other cannabinoids with known abuse potential, and to other classes of abused drugs that increase dopamine signaling in the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) shell. Thus the neurochemical mechanisms that produce the rewarding properties of JWH-018, which most likely contributes to the greater incidence of dependence associated with “Spice” use, will be described (De Luca et al., 2015a). Considering the growing evidence of a widespread use of NPS, this review will be useful to understand the new trends in the field of drug reward and drug addiction by revealing the rewarding properties of NPS, and will be helpful to gather reliable data regarding the abuse potential of these compounds.

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          A potent, synthetic cannabinoid was radiolabeled and used to characterize and precisely localize cannabinoid receptors in slide-mounted sections of rat brain and pituitary. Assay conditions for 3H-CP55,940 binding in Tris-HCl buffer with 5% BSA were optimized, association and dissociation rate constants determined, and the equilibrium dissociation constant (Kd) calculated (21 nM by liquid scintillation counting, 5.2 nM by quantitative autoradiography). The results of competition studies, using several synthetic cannabinoids, add to prior data showing enantioselectivity of binding and correlation of in vitro potencies with potencies in biological assays of cannabinoid actions. Inhibition of binding by guanine nucleotides was selective and profound: Nonhydrolyzable analogs of GTP and GDP inhibited binding by greater than 90%, and GMP and the nonhydrolyzable ATP analog showed no inhibition. Autoradiography showed great heterogeneity of binding in patterns of labeling that closely conform to cytoarchitectural and functional domains. Very dense 3H-CP55,940 binding is localized to the basal ganglia (lateral caudate-putamen, globus pallidus, entopeduncular nucleus, substantia nigra pars reticulata), cerebellar molecular layer, innermost layers of the olfactory bulb, and portions of the hippocampal formation (CA3 and dentate gyrus molecular layer). Moderately dense binding is found throughout the remaining forebrain. Sparse binding characterizes the brain stem and spinal cord. Densitometry confirmed the quantitative heterogeneity of cannabinoid receptors (10 nM 3H-CP55,940 binding ranged in density from 6.3 pmol/mg protein in the substantia nigra pars reticulata to 0.15 pmol/mg protein in the anterior lobe of the pituitary). The results suggest that the presently characterized cannabinoid receptor mediates physiological and behavioral effects of natural and synthetic cannabinoids, because it is strongly coupled to guanine nucleotide regulatory proteins and is discretely localized to cortical, basal ganglia, and cerebellar structures involved with cognition and movement.

            Author and article information

            1Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Cagliari Cagliari, Italy
            2Advisory and Steering Group, URITo.N. - Unit for Research and Innovation on Forensic Toxicology, Neuroscience of Addiction and New Drugs. FT-DSS University of Florence Florence, Italy
            3Department of Diagnostic and Public Health, University of Verona Verona, Italy
            4Departmentof Pharmaceutical and Pharmacological Sciences, University of Padua Padua, Italy
            5Department of Life Sciences and Biotechnology, University of Ferrara Ferrara, Italy
            Author notes

            Edited by: Styliani Vlachou, Dublin City University, Ireland

            Reviewed by: Joseph F. Cheer, University of Maryland School of Medicine, USA; Viviana Trezza, University “Roma Tre,” Italy

            *Correspondence: Maria Antonietta De Luca deluca@

            This article was submitted to Neuropharmacology, a section of the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience

            Front Neurosci
            Front Neurosci
            Front. Neurosci.
            Frontiers in Neuroscience
            Frontiers Media S.A.
            19 April 2016
            : 10
            Copyright © 2016 Miliano, Serpelloni, Rimondo, Mereu, Marti and De Luca.

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

            Figures: 5, Tables: 4, Equations: 0, References: 193, Pages: 21, Words: 15155


            novel psychoactive substances, nps, cannabinoids, psychostimulants, jwh-018, spice


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