Widespread but regionally specific effects of experimenter- versus self-administered morphine on dendritic spines in the nucleus accumbens, hippocampus, and neocortex of adult rats

Synapse. 2002 Dec 15;46(4):271-9. doi: 10.1002/syn.10146.


We studied the effects of self-administered (SA) vs. experimenter-administered (EA) morphine on dendritic spines in the hippocampal formation (CA1 and dentate), nucleus accumbens shell (NAcc-s), sensory cortex (Par1 and Oc1), medial frontal cortex (Cg3), and orbital frontal cortex (AID) of rats. Animals in the SA group self-administered morphine in 2-h sessions (0.5 mg/kg/infusion, i.v.) for an average of 22 sessions and animals in the EA group were given daily i.v. injections of doses that approximated the total session dose for matched rats in Group SA (average cumulative dose/session of 7.7 mg/kg). Control rats were given daily i.v. infusions of saline. One month after the last treatment the brains were processed for Golgi-Cox staining. In most brain regions (Cg3, Oc1, NAcc-s) morphine decreased the density of dendritic spines, regardless of mode of administration (although to a significantly greater extent in Group SA). However, only SA morphine decreased spine density in the hippocampal formation and only EA morphine decreased spine density in Par1. Interestingly, in the orbital frontal cortex morphine significantly increased spine density in both Groups SA and EA, although to a much greater extent in Group SA. We conclude: 1) Morphine has persistent (at least 1 month) effects on the density of dendritic spines in many brain regions, and on many different types of cells (medium spiny neurons, pyramidal cells, and granule cells); 2) The effect of morphine on spine density (and presumably synaptic organization) varies as a function of both brain region and mode of drug administration; and 3) The ability of morphine to remodel synaptic inputs in a regionally specific manner may account for the many different long-term sequelae associated with opioid use.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Count
  • Dendrites / drug effects*
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Hippocampus / cytology
  • Hippocampus / drug effects*
  • Male
  • Morphine / pharmacology*
  • Neocortex / cytology
  • Neocortex / drug effects*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / cytology
  • Nucleus Accumbens / drug effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Self Administration


  • Morphine