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Mol Neurobiol. 2001 Apr-Jun;23(2-3):155-71.

Neuroadaptive responses in brainstem noradrenergic nuclei following chronic morphine exposure.

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  • 1Thomas Jefferson University, Department of Pathology, Anatomy, and Cell Biology, Philadelphia, PA 19107, USA.


Opiate dependence and withdrawal involve neuroadaptive responses in the central nervous system. A host of studies have previously implicated the A6 noradrenergic neurons of the pontine nucleus locus coeruleus (LC) as an important mediator of somatic signs observed upon withdrawal from opiates. Recent studies, however, are showing that noradrenergic neurons of the LC may not be solely involved in mediating somatic signs of withdrawal. The A2 noradrenergic neurons of the nucleus of the solitary tract (nucleus tractus solitarius [NTS]) in the caudal brainstem may be another possible site. Neurons in the nucleus paragigantocellularis lateralis (PGi), located in the rostral ventral medulla, which are known to send collateral projections to both the LC and the NTS, may co-modulate both noradrenergic nuclei in a parallel fashion, which may represent an anatomical substrate underlying the behavioral expression of opiate withdrawal. The PGi provides glutamatergic and opioid innervation to LC neurons. Hyperactivity of LC during opiate withdrawal arises, in part, from increased glutamate transmission in this pathway. The authors have recently shown that the excitatory transmitter, glutamate, co-exists with the endogenous opioid peptide, enkephalin, in a subset of axon terminals in the LC. Decreases in endogenous opioids in afferents to LC and NTS, following chronic opiate administration, may be equally important in modulating noradrenergic neurons following chronic opiate exposure, by removing a neurochemical system that would inhibit noradrenergic neurons. A persistent decrease in opioid peptide release from afferents during withdrawal would result in glutamate acting on postsynaptic targets, in an unopposed fashion. A parallel effect in opioid projections from PGi to the NTS would potentially support similar actions in this noradrenergic nucleus. The authors' recent data show that opioid-containing neurons in the PGi project to the NTS, and that enkephalin levels are decreased in opioid afferents to the NTS. This review summarizes data that the authors have collected regarding opioid expression changes in brainstem circuits (PGi-LC and PGi-NTS), following chronic morphine treatment, which may represent a model for understanding of adaptations in endogenous opioid circuits during drug dependence and withdrawal.

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