The Nociceptin Receptor as an Emerging Molecular Target for Cocaine Addiction

Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2016:137:149-81. doi: 10.1016/bs.pmbts.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Dec 23.


Cocaine addiction is a global public health and socioeconomic issue that requires pharmacological and cognitive therapies. Currently there are no FDA-approved medications to treat cocaine addiction. However, in preclinical studies, interventions ranging from herbal medicine to deep-brain stimulation have shown promise for the therapy of cocaine addiction. Recent developments in molecular biology, pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry have enabled scientists to identify novel molecular targets along the pathways involved in drug addiction. In 1994, a receptor that showed a great deal of homology to the traditional opioid receptors was characterized. However, endogenous and exogenous opioids failed to bind to this receptor, which led scientists to name it opioid receptor-like receptor, now referred to as the nociceptin receptor. The endogenous ligand of NOPr was identified a year later and named orphanin FQ/nociceptin. Nociceptin and NOPr are widely distributed throughout the CNS and are involved in many physiological responses, such as food intake, nociceptive processing, neurotransmitter release, etc. Furthermore, exogenous nociceptin has been shown to regulate the activity of mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons, glutamate, and opioid systems, and the stress circuit. Importantly, exogenous nociceptin has been shown to reduce the rewarding and addictive actions of a number of drugs of abuse, such as psychostimulants, alcohol, and opioids. This paper reviews the existing literature on the role of endogenous nociceptin in the rewarding and addictive actions of cocaine. The effect of exogenous nociceptin on these processes is also reviewed. Furthermore, the effects of novel small-molecule NOPr ligands on these actions of cocaine are discussed. Overall, a review of the literature suggests that NOPr could be an emerging target for cocaine addiction pharmacotherapy.

Keywords: anxiety; cocaine addiction; nociceptin; nociceptin receptor; opioid receptor-like receptor; orphanin FQ; reinforcement; reward; stress.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Nociceptin Receptor
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology*


  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Nociceptin Receptor
  • OPRL1 protein, human