The role of the opioid system in alcohol dependence

J Psychopharmacol. 2014 Jan;28(1):8-22. doi: 10.1177/0269881113504017. Epub 2013 Sep 18.


The role of the brain opioid system in alcohol dependence has been the subject of much research for over 25 years. This review explores the evidence: firstly describing the opioid receptors in terms of their individual subtypes, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and ligands; secondly, summarising emerging data from specific neurochemical, behavioural and neuroimaging studies, explaining the characteristics of addiction with a focus on alcohol dependence and connecting the opioid system with alcohol dependence; and finally reviewing the known literature regarding opioid antagonists in clinical use for alcohol dependence. Further interrogation of how modulation of the opioid system, via use of MOP (mu), DOP (delta) and KOP (kappa) agents, restores the balance of a dysregulated system in alcohol dependence should increase our insight into this disease process and therefore guide better methods for understanding and treating alcohol dependence in the future.

Keywords: Brain opioid system; addiction; alcohol; dependence; opiates; receptor; review.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / drug therapy
  • Alcoholism / metabolism
  • Alcoholism / physiopathology*
  • Behavior, Addictive / drug therapy
  • Behavior, Addictive / metabolism
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior
  • Narcotic Antagonists / pharmacology*
  • Narcotic Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Receptors, Opioid / drug effects
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology*


  • Narcotic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Opioid