Regulated endocytosis of opioid receptors: cellular mechanisms and proposed roles in physiological adaptation to opiate drugs

Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2003 Jun;13(3):348-53. doi: 10.1016/s0959-4388(03)00069-2.


Opiate drugs such as morphine and heroin are among the most effective analgesics known. Prolonged or repeated administration of opiates produces adaptive changes in the nervous system that lead to reduced drug potency or efficacy (tolerance), as well as physiological withdrawal symptoms and behavioral manifestations such as craving when drug use is terminated (dependence). These adaptations limit the therapeutic utility of opiate drugs, particularly in the treatment of chronically painful conditions, and are thought to contribute to the highly addictive nature of opiates. For many years it has been proposed that physiological tolerance to opiate drugs is associated with a modification of the number or functional activity of opioid receptors in specific neurons. We now understand certain mechanisms of opioid receptor desensitization and endocytosis in considerable detail. However, the functional roles that these mechanisms play in the complex physiological adaptation of the intact nervous system to opiates are only beginning to be explored.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / drug effects*
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Drug Tolerance / physiology
  • Endocytosis / drug effects*
  • Endocytosis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Opioid / agonists*
  • Receptors, Opioid / chemistry
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid