NIDA Backs Optogenetics Study of Mu Opioid Receptors In the Human Brain

By John Lavitt 07/08/15

Focusing on opioid receptors could lead to greater understanding of how the drug influences the brain.

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse believes optogenetics should be used as a new tool to study opioid receptors in the human brain. Optogenetics is a widely used technique in which light-activated receptors are expressed in specific neuronal populations. Typically the technology has been used to modulate receptors that directly influence electrical current via ion channels to determine the effects of activating or inhibiting these neurons. However, the study sought to ask the question, what would the results be when the technology of optogenetics was applied to the mu opioid receptors in the human brain?

Opioid drugs act on specific receptors to modulate a wide range of physiological functions. Mu opioid receptors (MOR) are responsible for the drug-induced euphoria and reward-inducing aspects of opioid use and abuse, including prescription painkillers and heroin. They influence brain activity by modulating the electrical current that signals the response to the stimulation of the opioid receptors. The prototypical mu opioid receptor agonist is morphine, the primary psychoactive alkaloid in opium.

The NIDA study created a MOR that is activated by light to allow optogenetic control of MOR signaling. Dubbed Opto-MOR, the new receptor enhanced by the optogenetics technology “effectively mimics MOR by acting on the same downstream signaling cascades within the cell.”

Although human applications have yet to be made, testing on rodents and mice has already begun. When Opto-MOR are expressed in reward circuitry areas of the mouse brain through the process of light activation, they induced the same effect as would be expected from administering opioids such as morphine or heroin. This new tool will allow for a significantly more detailed understanding of neural processes important for opioid use disorder and how the drug addresses the problem of pain.

Given the rash of prescription painkiller and heroin abuse across the country, the hope is that the new technology will increase the scientific understanding of the mu opioid receptors. By highlighting the receptors in action, a greater understanding will be gained of how the drug affects and influences the human brain.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.