Tramadol and another atypical opioid meperidine have exaggerated serotonin syndrome behavioural effects, but decreased analgesic effects, in genetically deficient serotonin transporter (SERT) mice

Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2009 Sep;12(8):1055-65. doi: 10.1017/S146114570900011X. Epub 2009 Mar 11.


The serotonin syndrome is a potential side-effect of serotonin-enhancing drugs, including antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). We recently reported a genetic mouse model for the serotonin syndrome, as serotonin transporter (SERT)-deficient mice have exaggerated serotonin syndrome behavioural responses to the MAOI tranylcypromine and the serotonin precursor 5-hydroxy-l-tryptophan (5-HTP). As numerous case reports implicate the atypical opioids tramadol and meperidine in the development of the human serotonin syndrome, we examined tramadol and meperidine as possible causative drugs in the rodent model of the serotonin syndrome in SERT wild-type (+/+), heterozygous (+/-) and knockout (-/-) mice. Comparisons were made with SERT mice treated with either vehicle or morphine, an opioid not implicated in the serotonin syndrome in humans. Here we show that tramadol and meperidine, but not morphine, induce serotonin syndrome-like behaviours in mice, and we show that this response is exaggerated in mice lacking one or two copies of SERT. The exaggerated response to tramadol in SERT-/- mice was blocked by pretreatment with the 5-HT1A antagonist WAY 100635. Further, we show that morphine-, meperidine- and tramadol-induced analgesia is markedly decreased in SERT-/- mice. These studies suggest that caution seems warranted in prescribing or not warning patients receiving SSRIs or MAOIs that dangerous side-effects may occur during concurrent use of tramadol and similar agents. These findings suggest that it is conceivable that there might be increased vulnerability in individuals with SERT polymorphisms that may reduce SERT by more than 50%, the level in SERT+/- mice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects*
  • Behavioral Symptoms / genetics*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Interactions
  • Drug Synergism
  • Female
  • Meperidine / pharmacology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Pain Measurement / drug effects
  • Pain Measurement / methods
  • Piperazines / pharmacology
  • Pyridines / pharmacology
  • Serotonin Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / deficiency*
  • Tramadol / pharmacology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Piperazines
  • Pyridines
  • Serotonin Antagonists
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Tramadol
  • N-(2-(4-(2-methoxyphenyl)-1-piperazinyl)ethyl)-N-(2-pyridinyl)cyclohexanecarboxamide
  • Meperidine