Background: Initial hypotheses regarding the role of the kappa opioid system in drug addiction suggested that kappa receptor stimulation had anti-addictive effects. However, recent research suggests that kappa receptor antagonists may reverse motivational aspects of dependence. In the present review, we revisit the studies that measured the effects of kappa receptor ligands on the reinforcing and rewarding effects of drugs and postulate underlying neurobiological mechanisms for these effects to elaborate a more complex view of the role of kappa receptor ligands in drug addiction.
Results: The review of studies indicates that kappa receptor stimulation generally antagonizes the acute reinforcing/rewarding effects of drugs whereas kappa receptor blockade has no consistent effect. However, in a drug dependent-like state, kappa receptor blockade was effective in reducing increased drug intake. In animal models of reinstatement, kappa receptor stimulation can induce reinstatement via a stress-like mechanism. Results in conditioned place preference/aversion and intracranial self-stimulation indicate that kappa receptor agonists produce, respectively, aversive-like and dysphoric-like effects. Additionally, preclinical and postmortem studies show that administration or self-administration of cocaine, ethanol, and heroin activate the kappa opioid system.
Conclusion: kappa receptor agonists antagonize the reinforcing/rewarding effects of drugs possibly through punishing/aversive-like effects and reinstate drug seeking through stress-like effects. Evidence suggests that abused drugs activate the kappa opioid system, which may play a key role in motivational aspects of dependence. Kappa opioid systems may have an important role in driving compulsive drug intake.