Immune-derived opioids and peripheral antinociception

Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2001 Mar;28(3):230-2. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1681.2001.03425.x.


1. Recent findings have suggested a significant involvement of the immune system in the control of pain. Immune cells contain opioid peptides that are released within inflamed tissue and act at opioid receptors on peripheral sensory nerve endings. It is also apparent that different types of lymphocytes contain beta-endorphin, memory T cells containing more beta-endorphin than naïve cells. 2. These findings highlight an integral link between immune cell migration and inflammatory pain. The present review highlights immune system involvement in the site-directed control of inflammatory pain. 3. Full-length mRNA transcripts for opioid precursor proteins are expressed in immune cells. Increased expression of pro-opiomelanocortin mRNA and beta-endorphin has been demonstrated in stimulated lymphocytes and lymphocytes from animals with inflammation. 4. Cytokines and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) release opioids from immune cells. Potent peripheral analgesia due to direct injection of CRF can be blocked by antagonists to CRF, antibodies to opioid peptides, antisense to CRF and opioid receptor-specific antagonists. The release of opioid peptides from lymphocytes is calcium dependent and opioid receptor specific. Furthermore, endogenous sources of opioid peptides produce potent analgesia when implanted into the spinal cord. 5. Activated immune cells migrate directly to inflamed tissue using cell adhesion molecules to adhere to the epithelial surface of the vasculature in inflamed tissue. Lymphocytes that have been activated can express opioid peptides. Memory type T cells that contain opioid peptides are present within inflamed tissue; naive cells are not present in inflamed tissue and do not contain opioid peptides. Inhibiting the migration of memory type T cells into inflamed tissue by blocking selectins results in reduced numbers of beta-endorphin-containing cells, a reduced quantity of beta-endorphin in inflamed paws and reduced stress- and CRF-induced peripheral analgesia. 6. Immunosuppression is associated with increased pain in patients. Moreover, immunosuppression results in decreased lymphocyte numbers as well as decreased analgesia in animal models.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Immune System / metabolism
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes / physiology
  • Opioid Peptides / metabolism
  • Opioid Peptides / physiology*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System / physiology*


  • Opioid Peptides