Opponent process theory of motivation: neurobiological evidence from studies of opiate dependence

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1989 Summer-Fall;13(2-3):135-40. doi: 10.1016/s0149-7634(89)80022-3.


One hypothetical model for a mechanism of drug dependence involves the development of an adaptive process that is initiated to counter the acute effects of the drug. This adaptive process persists after the drug has been cleared from the brain, leaving an opposing reaction unopposed (abstinence signs). From a motivational perspective a particularly attractive hypothesis has been that of opponent process theory (32). Here many reinforcers elicit positive affective and hedonic processes that are opposed by negative affective and hedonic processes. Thus the intense pleasure of the opiate drug "rush" or "high" would be opposed by aversive withdrawal symptoms. The present paper presents neurobiological evidence to support the opponent process concept and suggests neural circuitry that may be involved. The region of the nucleus accumbens in the forebrain of the rat has been shown to be a particularly sensitive substrate not only for the acute reinforcing properties of opiate drugs, but also for the response disruptive effects of opiate antagonists in opiate dependent rats. This region also appears to be particularly sensitive to the aversive stimulus effects of opiate antagonists using a place aversion measure in dependent rats. These results suggest that the region of the nucleus accumbens and its neural circuitry may be an important neural substrate for both the positive and negative motivational aspects of drug dependence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Motivation*
  • Narcotics / administration & dosage
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Self Administration
  • Substance Withdrawal Syndrome / physiopathology


  • Narcotics