Differential roles of opioid receptors in respiration, respiratory disease, and opiate-induced respiratory depression

Am Rev Respir Dis. 1990 Oct;142(4):895-909. doi: 10.1164/ajrccm/142.4.895.


In summary, these findings indicate the importance of designing future experiments that delineate between opioid and nonopioid forms of respiratory disease and dysfunction, and the need to identify means of diagnosing them in order to achieve successful recovery. Apparently there is great diversity between animal species in terms of contributions of endogenous opioids to tonic control of ventilation, and future work should strive to identify which species is most appropriate as a model of human ventilatory control and disease. Certain opioid receptor types appear to be linked to independent respiratory functions. For instance, mu receptors in the brain stem produce strong inhibitory actions on respiratory parameters, including RR, VT, VE, and CO2 sensitivity. These effects have been observed in vivo and by electrophysiologic recordings in vitro. Delta receptors may also exert some inhibitory effect on respiration, especially in the NTS. In the CNS, the ventral surfaces of the medulla and pons, especially the NTS and NA, seem to be important sites for opioid-induced inhibition of respiration, whereas the spinal cord probably is not involved in opioid-mediated ventilatory depression. Kappa receptors appear to be devoid of respiratory depressant activity, whereas sigma receptors may stimulate some ventilatory parameters. Morphine and similar pure mu agonists, such as fentanyl and oxymorphine, probably produce their analgesic and respiratory depressant effects through stimulation of mu receptors. Mixed agonists/antagonists that have mu antagonist (or partial agonist) activity plus kappa agonist and/or sigma agonist activity show a ceiling effect for respiratory depression. Future tests need to determine which opioid receptor may be responsible for the ceiling effect. In addition, the effects of mu, delta, kappa, and sigma selective agonists on hypoxic drive should also be determined, as a drug that stimulates hypoxic sensitivity in the face of hypercapnic depression may produce less overall respiratory depression due to counteractive effects. In the future, clinically optimal opiates should have more specificity of action than those available now. This may be achieved by creating drugs selective for single receptors or by creating drugs with desirable combinations of receptor selectivities. The combinations of mixed agonists/antagonists with pure mu agonists currently in use today are promising, as they provide analgesia with reduced respiratory depression. In the early days of opiate research and development, combination drug regimens were thoroughly tested to determine the "ideal ratios" that would retain analgesic properties but not the other undesirable effects such as respiratory depression (196).(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Depression, Chemical
  • Endorphins / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Narcotics / pharmacology*
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology*
  • Respiration / drug effects
  • Respiration / physiology*
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / physiopathology


  • Endorphins
  • Narcotics
  • Receptors, Opioid