Ultrastructural localization of enkephalin and mu-opioid receptors in the rat ventral tegmental area

Neuroscience. 2002;114(2):461-74. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4522(02)00249-x.


Enkephalins are endogenous ligands for opioid receptors whose activation potently modulates the output of mesocorticolimbic dopaminergic neurons within the ventral tegmental area. Many of the reinforcing effects of enkephalins in the mesocorticolimbic system are mediated by mu-opioid receptors. To determine the sites for Leu(5)-enkephalin activation of mu-opioid receptors in the ventral tegmental area, we examined the dual electron microscopic immunocytochemical localization of their respective antigens in this region of rat brain. Enkephalin immunoperoxidase reaction product and mu-opioid receptor immunogold-silver labeling showed similar cellular and subcellular distribution in both the paranigral and parabrachial subdivisions of the ventral tegmental area. Enkephalin immunoreactivity was mainly localized in small unmyelinated axons (50.4%) and in axon terminals (40.4%). The majority of these terminals formed symmetric, inhibitory-type synapses, many of which were on dendrites expressing plasmalemmal mu-opioid receptors. Appositional contacts were also often seen between axons or terminals that were differentially labeled for the two antigens. In addition, some of the enkephalin-labeled terminals and a few somatodendritic profiles showed a plasmalemmal or vesicular localization of mu-opioid receptors. Our results indicate that dendritic targets of inhibitory terminals, as well as nearby axon terminals, are potential sites for enkephalin activation of mu-opioid receptors throughout the ventral tegmental area. Moreover, co-localization of enkephalin and mu-opioid receptors in selective neuronal profiles may indicate an autoregulatory role for these receptors or their internalization along with the bound ligand in this brain region.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoreceptors / metabolism
  • Autoreceptors / ultrastructure
  • Dendrites / metabolism*
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Enkephalins / metabolism*
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated / metabolism
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated / ultrastructure
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Presynaptic Terminals / metabolism*
  • Presynaptic Terminals / ultrastructure
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism*
  • Synaptic Membranes / metabolism*
  • Synaptic Membranes / ultrastructure
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / ultrastructure


  • Autoreceptors
  • Enkephalins
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu