Understanding opioid reward

Trends Neurosci. 2015 Apr;38(4):217-25. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2015.01.002. Epub 2015 Jan 29.


Opioids are the most potent analgesics in clinical use; however, their powerful rewarding properties can lead to addiction. The scientific challenge is to retain analgesic potency while limiting the development of tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Both rewarding and analgesic actions of opioids depend upon actions at the mu opioid (MOP) receptor. Systemic opioid reward requires MOP receptor function in the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) which contains dopaminergic neurons. VTA dopaminergic neurons are implicated in various aspects of reward including reward prediction error, working memory, and incentive salience. It is now clear that subsets of VTA neurons have different pharmacological properties and participate in separate circuits. The degree to which MOP receptor agonists act on different VTA circuits depends upon the behavioral state of the animal, which can be altered by manipulations such as food deprivation or prior exposure to MOP receptor agonists.

Keywords: VTA; addiction; midbrain; morphine; mu opioid receptor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Receptors, Opioid / drug effects
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / drug effects*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Reward*
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / drug effects


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu