A cellular mechanism for the antinociceptive effect of a kappa opioid receptor agonist

Pain. 2001 Apr;91(3):377-388. doi: 10.1016/S0304-3959(00)00464-4.


This study used concordant behavioral and electrophysiological approaches to examine the actions of the prototypic kappa opioid receptor agonist U69593 in the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM). In vitro whole-cell voltage clamp recordings indicated that bath application of U69593 produced outward currents in primary cells in the RVM. In secondary cells, which comprised 80% of the population, U69593 produced a concentration-dependent and norbinaltorphimine (norBNI)-reversible inhibition of evoked excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) in the absence of any postsynaptic effect. U69593 also decreased the frequency, but not the amplitude of spontaneous miniature excitatory postsynaptic currents (mEPSCs) in secondary cells. The inhibition of excitatory inputs to secondary cells would be consonant with disinhibition of primary cells and the production of antinociception. Consistent with this expectation, the activation of kappa opioid receptors in the RVM by microinjection of U69593 produced a dose-dependent increase in paw-withdrawal latency that was antagonized by norBNI. Furthermore, microinjection of norBNI in the RVM antagonized the increases in paw-withdrawal latency and hot-plate latency produced by systemically-administered U69593. In contrast, microinjection of norBNI in the RVM did not antagonize the increase in tail-flick latency produced by systemically-administered U69593. Also, microinjection of U69593 in the RVM did not increase tail-flick latency. The highly test-dependent nature of U69593's effects suggests that the mechanisms by which neurons in the RVM modulate thermal nociceptive responses evoked from the tail and hindpaw are not uniform. Collectively, these data suggest that the RVM is a primary site of action for the antinociceptive actions of kappa opioid receptor agonists and that the mechanism most likely involves a presynaptic inhibition of excitatory inputs to secondary cells. Thus, disinhibition of pain inhibitory neurons in the RVM is likely to be a common mechanism by which opioid receptor agonists produce antinociception, whether by the direct inhibition of inhibitory secondary cells, as in the case of mu opioid receptor agonists, or by a reduction in the excitatory drive to these neurons, as in the case of kappa opioid receptor agonists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Benzeneacetamides*
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / drug effects
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials / physiology
  • Hindlimb / innervation
  • Hot Temperature
  • Male
  • Medulla Oblongata / cytology
  • Medulla Oblongata / drug effects
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiology
  • Microinjections
  • Neurons, Afferent / drug effects
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Nociceptors / drug effects*
  • Nociceptors / physiology*
  • Pain Threshold / drug effects
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Pyrrolidines / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / agonists*
  • Tail / innervation


  • Analgesics
  • Benzeneacetamides
  • Pyrrolidines
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa
  • U 69593