Opioid Abuse Changes Brain’s Reward System

opioid abuseIn order for the development of more effective, and less dangerous, pain relievers, researchers must identify the specific pathways that promote pain relief, opioid addiction, and tolerance.[1] Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have revealed that opioid use alters the activity of a specific protein that is needed for the brain’s reward center to function normally.1

Researchers report that opioid use changes activity of the protein RGS9-2, altering both the threshold for pain relief and opioid tolerance.1 Researchers conducted studies on mice, where they were able to block the protein and increase its expression.1

“We were able to block addiction-related behaviors, but increasing the activity of the protein also lowered the pain relief response to morphine, and mice developed morphine tolerance much more quickly,” said senior researcher Venetia Zachariou, Ph.D.1

Because the brain’s reward center has a strong impact on analgesic, or pain-relieving, responses, Zachariou stated that non-opioid medicines should be used to treat severe chronic pain conditions.1 “For patients that are already addicted to opioids, an alternative pain medication could offer more analgesic relief without the adverse effects of opioids. Additionally, with this research in hand, the research team points out that targeting this molecule may eventually lead to novel treatment for addiction.”1

For the study, researchers used a technique called optogenetics, which allows the activation of specific neurons via blue light in real time.1 This allows the determination of the exact cell types of the brain reward center that are responsible for the reduced pain-relieving response.1

“In our earlier work, by inactivating RGS9-2, we saw a tenfold increase in sensitivity to the rewarding actions of morphine, severe morphine dependence, a better analgesic response, and delayed development of tolerance,” said Zachariou. “While opiate analgesics act in several brain regions to alleviate pain, their actions in the brain reward center may also affect analgesia.”1

Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., said, “These discoveries provide important new information about the role of the brain reward pathway in the analgesic responses to opiates.”1

While addiction to opioids is widespread, research stemming off these findings should continue.1 According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, in 2010, 1.9 million American were abusing prescription opioids.1

[1] Mount Sinai Medical Center. (2014, February 24). Opioid abuse initiates specific protein interactions in neurons in brain’s reward system. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 5, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140224105836.htm

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