Phylogenetic changes in the expression of delta opioid receptors in spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia

J Comp Neurol. 2003 Oct 20;465(3):349-60. doi: 10.1002/cne.10839.


To assess the validity of rodent models for investigating the role of delta opioid receptors (DOR) in analgesia, the distribution of DOR binding and mRNA were compared between rodent and primate spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia (DRG), using receptor autoradiography and in situ hybridization, respectively. In mouse and rat spinal cord, [(125)I]-deltorphin-labeled DOR binding sites were detected throughout the gray matter. In contrast, in primate and particularly in human spinal cord, DOR binding was mainly present in laminae I-II, with little to no binding in deeper layers. Accordingly, in rodent spinal cord, DOR mRNA was expressed by a large number of neurons distributed throughout the ventral and dorsal horns, whereas in the primate, DOR expression was significantly lower, as evidenced by a moderate number of labeled cells throughout the gray matter in monkey and by only few labeled cells in human, mainly in Clarke's column and lamina IX. Major species differences in DOR expression were also observed in primary afferent cells bodies. In rat DRG, intense DOR mRNA hybridization was primarily observed over large ganglion cells immunopositive for neurofilament 200. In contrast, in monkey and human DRG, DOR mRNA was primarily detected over small and medium-sized ganglion cells. These results demonstrate major differences in the expression and distribution of DOR in the spinal cord and DRG between mammalian species. Specifically, they point to a progressive specialization of DOR toward the regulation of primary somatosensory, namely nociceptive, inputs during phylogeny and suggest that the effects of DOR agonists in rodents may not be entirely predictive of their action in humans.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites / physiology
  • Female
  • Ganglia, Spinal / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Phylogeny*
  • RNA, Messenger / biosynthesis
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta / biosynthesis*
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta / genetics
  • Species Specificity
  • Spinal Cord / metabolism*


  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta