Endogenous Opioids: The Downside of Opposing Stress

Neurobiol Stress. 2015 Jan 1:1:23-32. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.09.006.


Our dynamic environment regularly exposes us to potentially life-threatening challenges or stressors. To answer these challenges and maintain homeostasis, the stress response, an innate coordinated engagement of central and peripheral neural systems is initiated. Although essential for survival, the inappropriate initiation of the stress response or its continuation after the stressor is terminated has pathological consequences that have been linked to diverse neuropsychiatric and medical diseases. Substantial individual variability exists in the pathological consequences of stressors. A theme of this Special Issue is that elucidating the basis of individual differences in resilience or its flipside, vulnerability, will greatly advance our ability to prevent and treat stress-related diseases. This can be approached by studying individual differences in "pro-stress" mediators such as corticosteroids or the hypothalamic orchestrator of the stress response, corticotropin-releasing factor. More recently, the recognition of endogenous neuromodulators with "anti-stress" activity that have opposing actions or that restrain stress-response systems suggests additional bases for individual differences in stress pathology. These "anti-stress" neuromodulators offer alternative strategies for manipulating the stress response and its pathological consequences. This review uses the major brain norepinephrine system as a model stress-response system to demonstrate how co-regulation by opposing pro-stress (corticotropin-releasing factor) and anti-stress (enkephalin) neuromodulators must be fine-tuned to produce an adaptive response to stress. The clinical consequences of tipping this fine-tuned balance in the direction of either the pro- or anti-stress systems are emphasized. Finally, that each system provides multiple points at which individual differences could confer stress vulnerability or resilience is discussed.

Keywords: corticotropin-releasing factor; enkephalin; locus coeruleus; μ-opioid receptor.