The insular cortex (IC) contributes to nociceptive information processing. IC neurons express opioid receptors, including the mu (MOR), kappa (KOR), and delta (DOR) subtypes. Opioidergic agonists suppress excitatory synaptic transmission in the cerebral cortex. In addition, morphine injection into the IC reduces responses to noxious thermal stimuli. However, the mechanisms of the opioid-dependent modulation of cortical excitation at the macroscopic level, which bridge the cellular and behavioral findings, have remained unknown. The present in vivo optical imaging study aimed to examine the effects of the agonists of each subtype on cortical excitatory propagation in the IC and the neighboring cortices, the primary (S1) and secondary somatosensory (S2) areas. To assess the opioidergic effects on the cortical circuits, we applied electrical stimulation to the maxillary 1st molar pulp, which induced excitation in the ventral part of S1 and the S2/insular oral region (IOR). The initial excitatory response was observed 10-14ms after stimulation, and then excitation propagated concentrically. DAMGO (10-100μM), an MOR agonist, suppressed the amplitude of cortical excitation and shrank the maximum excitation areas in S1 and S2/IOR. In contrast, 10-100μM DPDPE, a DOR agonist, increased the amplitude of excitation and expanded the area of maximum excitation. U50488 (10-100μM), a KOR agonist, had little effect on cortical excitation. These results suggest that MOR-induced suppression of excitatory propagation in the IC is an underlying mechanism of the powerful analgesic effects of MOR agonists. In contrast, DOR may play a minor role in suppressing acute pain.
Keywords: Insular cortex; Nociception; Opioid receptors; Optical imaging; Pain.
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