Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) are new psychoactive substances associated with acute intoxication and even death. However, the molecular mechanisms through which SCRAs may exert their toxic effects remain unclear - including the potential differential activation of G protein subtypes by CB1, a major target of SCRA. We measured CB1-mediated activation of Gαs and Gαi/o proteins by SCRAs by examining stimulation (PTX-treated) as well as inhibition (non-PTX treated) of forskolin-induced cAMP accumulation in HEK cells stably expressing CB1. Real-time measurements of stimulation and inhibition of cAMP levels were made using a BRET biosensor. We found that the maximum concentration of SCRAs tested (10 μM), increased cAMP levels 12 to 45% above that produced by forskolin alone, while the phytocannabinoid THC did not significantly alter cAMP levels in PTX-treated HEK-CB1 cells. All SCRAs had greater potency to inhibit of forskolin-induced cAMP levels than to stimulate cAMP levels. The rank order of potencies for SCRA stimulation of cAMP (Gαs) was PB-22 > 5F-MDMB-PICA > JWH-018 > AB-FUBINACA > XLR-11. By contrast, the potency of SCRAs for inhibition of cAMP (Gαi/o) was 5F-MDMB-PICA > AB-FUBINACA > PB-22 > JWH-018 > XLR-11. The different rank order of potency of the SCRAs to stimulate Gαs-like signalling compared to Gαi/o signalling suggests differences in G protein preference between SCRAs. Understanding the apparent differences among these drugs may contribute to unravelling their complex effects in humans.
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