Opioid receptors: from binding sites to visible molecules in vivo

Neuropharmacology. 2009;56 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):205-12. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2008.07.033. Epub 2008 Aug 5.


Opioid drugs such as heroin interact directly with opioid receptors whilst other addictive drugs, including marijuana, alcohol and nicotine indirectly activate endogenous opioid systems to contribute to their rewarding properties. The opioid system therefore plays a key role in addiction neurobiology and continues to be a primary focus for NIDA-supported research. Opioid receptors and their peptide ligands, the endorphins and enkephalins, form an extensive heterogeneous network throughout the central and peripheral nervous system. In addition to reward, opioid drugs regulate many functions such that opioid receptors are targets of choice in several physiological, neurological and psychiatric disorders. Because of the multiplicity and diversity of ligands and receptors, opioid receptors have served as an optimal model for G protein coupled receptor (GPCR) research. The isolation of opioid receptor genes opened the way to molecular manipulations of the receptors, both in artificial systems and in vivo, contributing to our current understanding of the diversity of opioid receptor biology at the behavioral, cellular and molecular levels. This review will briefly summarize some aspects of current knowledge that has accumulated since the very early characterization of opioid receptor genes. Importantly, we will identify a number of research directions that are likely to develop during the next decade.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites / drug effects
  • Binding Sites / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Narcotics / pharmacology
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Receptors, Opioid / genetics*
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / drug therapy


  • Narcotics
  • Receptors, Opioid