Contribution of brainstem GABA(A) synaptic transmission to morphine analgesic tolerance

Pain. 2006 May;122(1-2):163-73. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2006.01.031. Epub 2006 Mar 9.


Chronic opioid-induced analgesic tolerance remains a major obstacle to improving clinical management of moderate to severe chronic pain. Our understanding of the underlying mechanisms for opioid tolerance is only partially understood at present. In this study, we investigated the effects of chronic morphine on GABA(A) receptor-mediated synaptic transmission, a major opioid target for pain inhibition, and the behavioral role of GABA synaptic transmission in the development of morphine tolerance. In the nucleus raphe magnus (NRM), a critical brainstem site for opioid analgesia, the GABA(A) receptor-mediated inhibitory postsynaptic current (IPSC) was significantly increased in NRM neurons kept in a morphine-tolerant state from chronic morphine-treated rats. The potency of cAMP analogs for enhancing the GABA IPSC was also enhanced. The protein kinase A (PKA) inhibitor H89 reversed the chronic morphine-induced synaptic adaptation in GABA IPSCs. Behaviorally, a low dose of GABA(A) receptor antagonist bicuculline microinjected into the NRM, ineffective alone, blocked morphine antinociception in control rats, but failed to do so in morphine-tolerant rats. With chronic treatment through daily NRM microinjections, bicuculline augmented the development of morphine tolerance, whereas the GABA(A) receptor agonist muscimol or H89 significantly attenuated the development of morphine tolerance. These results suggest that chronic morphine increases GABA synaptic activity through upregulation of the AMP system in morphine-tolerant NRM neurons and that while chronic GABA(A) receptor antagonism in the NRM augments morphine tolerance, chronic activation of NRM GABA(A) receptors or PKA inhibition reduces morphine tolerance with increased analgesic efficacy of chronic morphine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage
  • Animals
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Male
  • Morphine / administration & dosage*
  • Pain Threshold / drug effects
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Raphe Nuclei / drug effects
  • Raphe Nuclei / metabolism*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Receptors, GABA-A / metabolism*
  • Synaptic Transmission / drug effects
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Morphine