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J Biol Chem. 2012 Jul 20;287(30):25073-85. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M112.378737. Epub 2012 Jun 7.

Chronic opioid potentiates presynaptic but impairs postsynaptic N-methyl-D-aspartic acid receptor activity in spinal cords: implications for opioid hyperalgesia and tolerance.

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Center for Pain and Neuroscience Research, Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


Opioids are the most effective analgesics for the treatment of moderate to severe pain. However, chronic opioid treatment can cause both hyperalgesia and analgesic tolerance, which limit their clinical efficacy. In this study, we determined the role of pre- and postsynaptic NMDA receptors (NMDARs) in controlling increased glutamatergic input in the spinal cord induced by chronic systemic morphine administration. Whole-cell voltage clamp recordings of excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) were performed on dorsal horn neurons in rat spinal cord slices. Chronic morphine significantly increased the amplitude of monosynaptic EPSCs evoked from the dorsal root and the frequency of spontaneous EPSCs, and these changes were largely attenuated by blocking NMDARs and by inhibiting PKC, but not PKA. Also, blocking NR2A- or NR2B-containing NMDARs significantly reduced the frequency of spontaneous EPSCs and the amplitude of evoked EPSCs in morphine-treated rats. Strikingly, morphine treatment largely decreased the amplitude of evoked NMDAR-EPSCs and NMDAR currents of dorsal horn neurons elicited by puff NMDA application. The reduction in postsynaptic NMDAR currents caused by morphine was prevented by resiniferatoxin pretreatment to ablate TRPV1-expressing primary afferents. Furthermore, intrathecal injection of the NMDAR antagonist significantly attenuated the development of analgesic tolerance and the reduction in nociceptive thresholds induced by chronic morphine. Collectively, our findings indicate that chronic opioid treatment potentiates presynaptic, but impairs postsynaptic, NMDAR activity in the spinal cord. PKC-mediated increases in NMDAR activity at nociceptive primary afferent terminals in the spinal cord contribute critically to the development of opioid hyperalgesia and analgesic tolerance.

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