Do pharmacological approaches that prevent opioid tolerance target different elements in the same regulatory machinery?

Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2008 Jun;1(2):222-38. doi: 10.2174/1874473710801020222.


In the nervous system, the interaction of opioids like heroin and morphine with the G protein-coupled Mu-opioid receptor (MOR) provokes the development of tolerance to these opioids, as well as physical dependence. Tolerance implies that higher doses of these drugs must be consumed in order to obtain an equivalent sensation, a situation that contributes notably to the social problems surrounding recreational opioid abuse. The mechanisms that promote opioid tolerance involve a series of adaptive changes in the MOR and in the post-receptor signalling elements. Pharmacological studies have consistently identified a number of signalling proteins relevant to morphine-induced tolerance, including the delta-opioid receptor (DOR), protein kinase C (PKC), protein kinase A (PKA), calcium/calmodulin-dependent kinase II (CaMKII), nitric oxide synthase (NOS), N-methyl-D-aspartate acid glutamate receptors (NMDAR), and regulators of G-signalling (RGS) proteins. Thus, it is feasible that these treatments which diminish morphine tolerance target distinct elements within the same regulatory machinery. In this scheme, the signals originated at the agonist-activated MORs would be recognised by elements such as the NMDARs, which in turn exert a negative feedback on MOR-evoked signalling. This process involves DOR regulation of MORs, MOR-induced activation of NMDARs (probably via the regulation of Src, recruiting PKC and Galpha subunits) and the NMDAR-mediated activation of CaMKII. The active CaMKII promotes the sequestering of morphine-activated Gbetagamma dimers by phosducin-like proteins (PhLP) and of Galpha subunits by RGS proteins and tolerance to opioids like morphine develops. Future efforts to study these phenomena should focus on fitting additional pieces into this puzzle in order to fully define the mechanism underlying the desensitization of MORs in neural cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Calcium-Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinase Type 2 / physiology
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases / physiology
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Drug Tolerance / physiology*
  • G-Protein-Coupled Receptor Kinases / physiology*
  • Heroin / adverse effects
  • Heroin Dependence / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Morphine / adverse effects
  • Morphine Dependence / physiopathology*
  • Narcotics / administration & dosage
  • Protein Kinase C / physiology
  • RGS Proteins / physiology
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / physiology*
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / physiology
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology
  • Young Adult


  • Narcotics
  • RGS Proteins
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Cyclic AMP-Dependent Protein Kinases
  • Protein Kinase C
  • G-Protein-Coupled Receptor Kinases
  • Calcium-Calmodulin-Dependent Protein Kinase Type 2