Hypothalamic opioid-melanocortin appetitive balance and addictive craving

Med Hypotheses. 2011 Jan;76(1):132-7. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2010.09.002.


Whilst the parallels between drug and food craving are receiving increasing attention, the recently elucidated complex physiology of the hypothalamic appetite regulatory centres has been largely overlooked in the efforts to understand drug craving which is one of the most refractory and problematic aspects of drug and behavioural addictions. Important conceptual gains could be made by researchers from both appetite and addiction neuroscience if they were to have an improved understanding of each others' disciplines. It is well known in addiction medicine that the use of many substances is elevated in opiate dependency. There is voluminous evidence of very high rates of drug use in opiate agonist maintained patients, and the real possibility exists that opiate agonist therapy therefore increases drug craving. Conversely, opiate antagonist therapy with naloxone or naltrexone has been shown to reduce most chemical and behavioural addictions, and naltrexone is now being developed together with bupropion as the anti-obesity drug "Contrave". Hypothalamic melanocortins, particularly α-MSH, are known to constitute the main brake to consumptive behaviour of food. There is a well described antagonism between melanocortins and opioids at many loci including the hypothalamus. Administration of exogenous opiates is known to both suppress α-MSH and to stimulate hedonic food consumption. Opiate maintenance programs are associated with weight gain. As monoamines, opioids and cannabinoids are known to be involved in appetite regulation, and as endorphin opioids are known to be perturbed in other addictions, further exploration of the hypothalamic appetite regulatory centre would appear to be an obvious, albeit presently largely overlooked, locus in which to study drug and other craving mechanisms.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Appetite*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / metabolism*
  • Melanocortins / metabolism*
  • Motivation*
  • Opioid Peptides / metabolism*
  • Pro-Opiomelanocortin / genetics
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Substance-Related Disorders / metabolism*


  • Melanocortins
  • Opioid Peptides
  • Pro-Opiomelanocortin