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J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 1993 Dec;267(3):1336-41.

Immunosuppression by morphine is mediated by central pathways.

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Department of Pharmacology, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, District of Columbia.


We reported previously that a single systemic injection of morphine (10 mg/kg) to rats profoundly suppressed mitogen-induced proliferation of blood lymphocytes by a receptor-mediated mechanism. The present study examined whether this immunosuppressive effect of morphine is mediated by opioid receptors located at either peripheral or central sites. First, the effects of systemic morphine administration on analgesia, mitogen-stimulated lymphocyte proliferation and corticosterone secretion were compared to those observed after the systemic administration of N-methylmorphine, a quaternary derivative which does not readily penetrate the blood-brain barrier. In contrast to systemically administered morphine, the i.p. injection of N-methyl-morphine (20 mg/kg) was without any effect on lymphocyte proliferation, plasma corticosterone concentrations or analgesic responses. Secondly, the effects of morphine and N-methylmorphine after central administration were compared. Within 2 hr after the microinjection of either morphine (10 micrograms/2 microliters) or N-methylmorphine (15 micrograms/2 microliters) into the third ventricle, blood lymphocyte responses were inhibited by 70%, plasma corticosterone concentrations were significantly elevated and maximal analgesic responses were present. Finally, microinjection of morphine (1 microgram/0.2 microliter) into the anterior hypothalamus inhibited blood lymphocyte proliferation by 50% without producing analgesia or a significant increase in plasma corticosterone. These findings suggest that central opioid pathways are involved in the immunosuppressive effects of morphine and these pathways may be distinct from those participating in opioid-induced analgesia and adrenal activation.

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