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J Neurosci. 2000 Dec 15;20(24):9242-51.

Antinociceptive action of nitrous oxide is mediated by stimulation of noradrenergic neurons in the brainstem and activation of [alpha]2B adrenoceptors.

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  • 1Department of Anesthesia, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California 94305, USA.


Although nitrous oxide (N(2)O) has been used to facilitate surgery for >150 years, its molecular mechanism of action is not yet defined. Having established that N(2)O-induced release of norepinephrine mediates the analgesic action at alpha(2) adrenoceptors in the spinal cord, we now investigated whether activation of noradrenergic nuclei in the brainstem is responsible for this analgesic action and which alpha(2) adrenoceptor subtype mediates this property. In rats, Fos immunoreactivity was examined in brainstem noradrenergic nuclei after exposure to nitrous oxide. After selective lesioning of noradrenergic nuclei by intracerebroventricular application of the mitochondrial toxin saporin, coupled to the antibody directed against dopamine beta hydroxylase (DbetaH-saporin), the analgesic and sedative actions of N(2)O were determined. Null mice for each of the three alpha(2) adrenoceptor subtypes (alpha(2A), alpha(2B), and alpha(2C)), and their wild-type cohorts, were tested for their antinociceptive and sedative response to N(2)O. Exposure to N(2)O increased expression of Fos immunoreactivity in each of the pontine noradrenergic nuclei (A5, locus coeruleus, and A7). DbetaH-saporin treatment eliminated nearly all of the catecholamine-containing neurons in the pons and blocked the analgesic but not the sedative effects of N(2)O. Null mice for the alpha(2B) adrenoceptor subtype exhibited a reduced or absent analgesic response to N(2)O, but their sedative response to N(2)O was intact. Our results support a pivotal role for noradrenergic pontine nuclei and alpha(2B) adrenoceptors in the analgesic, but not the sedative effects of N(2)O. Previously we demonstrated that the analgesic actions of alpha(2) adrenoceptor agonists are mediated by the alpha(2A) subtype; taken together with these data we propose that exogenous and endogenous alpha(2) adrenoceptor ligands activate different alpha(2) adrenoceptor subtypes to produce their analgesic action.

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