Opioid addiction and pregnancy: perinatal exposure to buprenorphine affects myelination in the developing brain

Glia. 2008 Jul;56(9):1017-27. doi: 10.1002/glia.20675.


Buprenorphine is a mu-opioid receptor partial agonist and kappa-opioid receptor antagonist currently on trials for the management of pregnant opioid-dependent addicts. However, little is known about the effects of buprenorphine on brain development. Oligodendrocytes express opioid receptors in a developmentally regulated manner and thus, it is logical to hypothesize that perinatal exposure to buprenorphine could affect myelination. To investigate this possibility, pregnant rats were implanted with minipumps to deliver buprenorphine at 0.3 or 1 mg/kg/day. Analysis of their pups at different postnatal ages indicated that exposure to 0.3 mg/kg/day buprenorphine caused an accelerated and significant increase in the brain expression of all myelin basic protein (MBP) splicing isoforms. In contrast, treatment with the higher dose caused a developmental delay in MBP expression. Examination of corpus callosum at 26-days of age indicated that both buprenorphine doses cause a significant increase in the caliber of the myelinated axons. Surprisingly, these axons have a disproportionately thinner myelin sheath, suggesting alterations at the level of axon-glial interactions. Analysis of myelin associated glycoprotein (MAG) expression and glycosylation indicated that this molecule may play a crucial role in mediating these effects. Co-immunoprecipitation studies also suggested a mechanism involving a MAG-dependent activation of the Src-family tyrosine kinase Fyn. These results support the idea that opioid signaling plays an important role in regulating myelination in vivo and stress the need for further studies investigating potential effects of perinatal buprenorphine exposure on brain development.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Buprenorphine / administration & dosage*
  • Buprenorphine / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Myelin Sheath / drug effects
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology*
  • Myelin Sheath / physiology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / pathology*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Buprenorphine