Mu Opioid Receptor Modulation of Dopamine Neurons in the Periaqueductal Gray/Dorsal Raphe: A Role in Regulation of Pain

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Jul;41(8):2122-32. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.12. Epub 2016 Jan 21.


The periaqueductal gray (PAG) is a brain region involved in nociception modulation, and an important relay center for the descending nociceptive pathway through the rostral ventral lateral medulla. Given the dense expression of mu opioid receptors and the role of dopamine in pain, the recently characterized dopamine neurons in the ventral PAG (vPAG)/dorsal raphe (DR) region are a potentially critical site for the antinociceptive actions of opioids. The objectives of this study were to (1) evaluate synaptic modulation of the vPAG/DR dopamine neurons by mu opioid receptors and to (2) dissect the anatomy and neurochemistry of these neurons, in order to assess the downstream loci and functions of their activation. Using a mouse line that expresses eGFP under control of the tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) promoter, we found that mu opioid receptor activation led to a decrease in inhibitory inputs onto the vPAG/DR dopamine neurons. Furthermore, combining immunohistochemistry, optogenetics, electrophysiology, and fast-scan cyclic voltammetry in a TH-cre mouse line, we demonstrated that these neurons also express the vesicular glutamate type 2 transporter and co-release dopamine and glutamate in a major downstream projection structure-the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Finally, activation of TH-positive neurons in the vPAG/DR using Gq designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs displayed a supraspinal, but not spinal, antinociceptive effect. These results indicate that vPAG/DR dopamine neurons likely play a key role in opiate antinociception, potentially via the activation of downstream structures through dopamine and glutamate release.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / chemistry
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Dorsal Raphe Nucleus / chemistry
  • Dorsal Raphe Nucleus / physiology*
  • Enkephalin, Ala(2)-MePhe(4)-Gly(5)- / administration & dosage
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Inhibitory Postsynaptic Potentials / drug effects
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Pain Perception / physiology*
  • Periaqueductal Gray / chemistry
  • Periaqueductal Gray / physiology*
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / agonists
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / physiology*
  • Septal Nuclei / metabolism
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / metabolism


  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Enkephalin, Ala(2)-MePhe(4)-Gly(5)-
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase
  • Dopamine