In vivo profiling of seven common opioids for antinociception, constipation and respiratory depression: no two opioids have the same profile

Br J Pharmacol. 2015 Jan;172(2):532-48. doi: 10.1111/bph.12696. Epub 2014 Jul 1.


Background and purpose: For patients experiencing inadequate analgesia and intolerable opioid-related side effects on one strong opioid analgesic, pain relief with acceptable tolerability is often achieved by rotation to a second strong opioid. These observations suggest subtle pharmacodynamic differences between opioids in vivo. This study in rats was designed to assess differences between opioids in their in vivo profiles.

Experimental approach: Male Sprague Dawley rats were given single i.c.v. bolus doses of morphine, morphine-6-glucuronide (M6G), fentanyl, oxycodone, buprenorphine, DPDPE ([D-penicillamine(2,5) ]-enkephalin) or U69,593. Antinociception, constipation and respiratory depression were assessed using the warm water tail-flick test, the castor oil-induced diarrhoea test and whole body plethysmography respectively.

Key results: These opioid agonists produced dose-dependent antinociception, constipation and respiratory depression. For antinociception, morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone were full agonists, buprenorphine and M6G were partial agonists, whereas DPDPE and U69,593 had low potency. For constipation, M6G, fentanyl and buprenorphine were full agonists, oxycodone was a partial agonist, morphine produced a bell-shaped dose-response curve, whereas DPDPE and U69,593 were inactive. For respiratory depression, morphine, M6G, fentanyl and buprenorphine were full agonists, oxycodone was a partial agonist, whereas DPDPE and U69,593 were inactive. The respiratory depressant effects of fentanyl and oxycodone were of short duration, whereas morphine, M6G and buprenorphine evoked prolonged respiratory depression.

Conclusion and implications: For the seven opioids we assessed, no two had the same profile for evoking antinociception, constipation and respiratory depression, suggesting that these effects are differentially regulated. Our findings may explain the clinical success of 'opioid rotation'.

Linked articles: This article is part of a themed section on Opioids: New Pathways to Functional Selectivity. To view the other articles in this section visit

Keywords: antinociception; buprenorphine; constipation; fentanyl; intracerebroventricular; morphine; morphine-6-glucuronide (M6G); oxycodone; rat; respiratory depression.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • Benzeneacetamides / adverse effects
  • Benzeneacetamides / therapeutic use
  • Buprenorphine / adverse effects
  • Buprenorphine / therapeutic use
  • Castor Oil
  • Constipation / chemically induced*
  • Diarrhea / chemically induced
  • Diarrhea / drug therapy
  • Enkephalin, D-Penicillamine (2,5)- / adverse effects
  • Enkephalin, D-Penicillamine (2,5)- / therapeutic use
  • Fentanyl / adverse effects
  • Fentanyl / therapeutic use
  • Hot Temperature
  • Male
  • Morphine / adverse effects
  • Morphine / therapeutic use
  • Morphine Derivatives / adverse effects
  • Morphine Derivatives / therapeutic use
  • Oxycodone / adverse effects
  • Oxycodone / therapeutic use
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pyrrolidines / adverse effects
  • Pyrrolidines / therapeutic use
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / chemically induced*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / physiopathology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Benzeneacetamides
  • Morphine Derivatives
  • Pyrrolidines
  • Buprenorphine
  • morphine-6-glucuronide
  • Morphine
  • Castor Oil
  • Enkephalin, D-Penicillamine (2,5)-
  • Oxycodone
  • U 69593
  • Fentanyl