The locus coeruleus: A key nucleus where stress and opioids intersect to mediate vulnerability to opiate abuse

Brain Res. 2010 Feb 16:1314:162-74. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2009.09.036. Epub 2009 Sep 16.


The interaction between the stress axis and endogenous opioid systems has gained substantial clinical attention as it is increasingly recognized that stress predisposes to opiate abuse. For example, stress has been implicated as a risk factor in vulnerability to the initiation and maintenance of opiate abuse and is thought to play an important role in relapse in subjects with a history of abuse. Numerous reports indicating that stress alters individual sensitivity to opiates suggest that prior stress can influence the pharmacodynamics of opiates that are used in clinical settings. Conversely, the effects of opiates on different components of the stress axis can impact on individual responsivity to stressors and potentially predispose individuals to stress-related psychiatric disorders. One site at which opiates and stress substrates may interact to have global effects on behavior is within the locus coeruleus (LC), the major brain norepinephrine (NE)-containing nucleus. This review summarizes our current knowledge regarding the anatomical and neurochemical afferent regulation of the LC. It then presents physiological studies demonstrating opposing interactions between opioids and stress-related neuropeptides in the LC and summarizes results showing that chronic morphine exposure sensitizes the LC-NE system to corticotropin releasing factor and stress. Finally, new evidence for novel presynaptic actions of kappa-opioids on LC afferents is provided that adds another dimension to our model of how this central NE system is co-regulated by opioids and stress-related peptides.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Locus Coeruleus / drug effects*
  • Locus Coeruleus / physiopathology*
  • Neural Pathways / drug effects
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism
  • Norepinephrine / metabolism
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / metabolism
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / chemically induced
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Neuropeptides
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Norepinephrine