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Eur J Neurosci. 2001 Oct;14(7):1091-104.

Chronic morphine exposure increases the phosphorylation of MAP kinases and the transcription factor CREB in dorsal root ganglion neurons: an in vitro and in vivo study.

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Douglas Hospital Research Centre, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H4H 1R3.


Tolerance to opiates reduces their effectiveness in the treatment of severe pain. Although the mechanisms are unclear, overactivity of pro-nociceptive systems has been proposed to contribute to this phenomenon. We have reported that the development of morphine tolerance significantly increased calcitonin-gene-related-peptide-like immunoreactivity (CGRP-IR) in primary sensory afferents of the spinal dorsal horn, suggesting that changes in pain-related neuropeptides in the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons may be involved (Menard et al., 1996, J. Neurosci., 16, 2342-2351). Recently, we have shown that repeated morphine treatments induced increases in CGRP- and substance P (SP)-IR in cultured DRG, mimicking the in vivo effects (Ma et al., 2000, Neuroscience, 99, 529-539). In this study, we investigated the intracellular signal transduction pathways possibly involved in morphine-induced increases in CGRP- and SP-IR in DRG neurons. Repeated morphine exposure (10-20 microm) for 6 days increased the number of neurons expressing phosphorylated (p) mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases, including the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (pERK), c-jun N-terminal kinase (pJNK) and P38 (pP38 MAPK). The number of neurons expressing phosphorylated cAMP responsive element binding protein (pCREB) was also markedly increased in morphine-exposed cultured DRG neurons. pERK-, pP38-, pJNK- and pCREB-IR were colocalized with CGRP-IR in cultured DRG neurons. Naloxone effectively blocked these actions of morphine, whereas a selective MEK1 inhibitor, PD98059, inhibited the morphine-induced increase in the phosphorylation of ERK and CREB, and the expression of CGRP and SP. Moreover, in morphine-tolerant rats, the number of pCREB-, CGRP- and SP-IR neurons in the lumbar DRG was also significantly increased. These in vitro and in vivo data suggest that the phosphorylation of MAP kinases and CREB plays a role in the morphine-induced increase in spinal CGRP and SP levels in primary sensory afferents, contributing to the development of tolerance to opioid-induced analgesia.

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