The endogenous opioid system is well known to relieve pain and underpin the rewarding properties of most drugs of abuse. Among opioid receptors, the μ receptor mediates most of the analgesic and rewarding properties of opioids. Based on striking similarities between social distress, physical pain and opiate withdrawal, μ receptors have been proposed to play a critical role in modulating social behaviour in humans and animals. This review summarizes experimental data demonstrating such role and proposes a novel model, the μ opioid receptor balance model, to account for the contribution of μ receptors to the subtle regulation of social behaviour. Interestingly, μ receptor null mice show behavioural deficits similar to those observed in patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including severe impairment in social interactions. Therefore, after a brief summary of recent evidence for blunted (social) reward processes in subjects with ASD, we review here arguments for altered μ receptor function in this pathology. This article is part of a themed section on Emerging Areas of Opioid Pharmacology. To view the other articles in this section visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bph.v175.14/issuetoc.
© 2017 The British Pharmacological Society.