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Biol Psychiatry. 2005 Jun 15;57(12):1573-82.

Imaging brain mu-opioid receptors in abstinent cocaine users: time course and relation to cocaine craving.

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  • 1Intramural Research Program, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Baltimore, Maryland 21224, USA.



Cocaine treatment upregulates brain mu-opioid receptors (mOR) in animals. Human data regarding this phenomenon are limited. We previously used positron emission tomography (PET) with [11C]-carfentanil to show increased mOR binding in brain regions of 10 cocaine-dependent men after 1 and 28 days of abstinence.


Regional brain mOR binding potential (BP) was measured with [11C]carfentanil PET scanning in 17 cocaine users over 12 weeks of abstinence on a research ward and in 16 healthy control subjects.


Mu-opioid receptor BP was increased in the frontal, anterior cingulate, and lateral temporal cortex after 1 day of abstinence. Mu-opioid receptor BP remained elevated in the first two regions after 1 week and in the anterior cingulate and anterior frontal cortex after 12 weeks. Increased binding in some regions at 1 day and 1 week was positively correlated with self-reported cocaine craving. Mu-opioid receptor BP was significantly correlated with percentage of days with cocaine use and amount of cocaine used per day of use during the 2 weeks before admission and with urine benzoylecgonine concentration at the first PET scan.


These results suggest that chronic cocaine use influences endogenous opioid systems in the human brain and might explain mechanisms of cocaine craving and reinforcement.

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