Despite the identification and characterization of four opioid receptor subtypes and the genes from which they are encoded, pharmacological data does not conform to the predications of a four opioid receptor model. Instead, current studies of opioid pharmacology suggest the existence of additional receptor subtypes; however, no additional opioid receptor subtype has been identified to date. It is now understood that this discrepancy is due to the generation of multiple isoforms of opioid receptor subtypes. While several mechanisms are utilized to generate these isoforms, the primary mechanism involves alternative splicing of the pre-mRNA transcript. Extensive alternative splicing patterns for opioid receptors have since been identified and discrepancies in opioid pharmacology are now partially attributed to variable expression of these isoforms. Recent studies have been successful in characterizing the localization of these isoforms as well as their specificity in ligand binding; however, the regulation of opioid receptor splicing specificity is poorly characterized. Furthermore, the functional significance of individual receptor isoforms and the extent to which opioid- and/or HIV-mediated changes in the opioid receptor isoform profile contributes to altered opioid pharmacology or the well-known physiological role of opioids in the exacerbation of HIV neurocognitive dysfunction is unknown. As such, the current review details constitutive splicing mechanisms as well as the specific architecture of opioid receptor genes, transcripts, and receptors in order to highlight the current understanding of opioid receptor isoforms, potential mechanisms of their regulation and signaling, and their functional significance in both opioid pharmacology and HIV-associated neuropathology.
© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.