Mu opioid receptors in GABAergic neurons of the forebrain promote alcohol reward and drinking

Addict Biol. 2019 Jan;24(1):28-39. doi: 10.1111/adb.12576. Epub 2017 Nov 2.


Mu opioid receptors (MORs) are widely distributed throughout brain reward circuits and their role in drug and social reward is well established. Substantial evidence has implicated MOR and the endogenous opioid system in alcohol reward, but circuit mechanisms of MOR-mediated alcohol reward and intake behavior remain elusive, and have not been investigated by genetic approaches. We recently created conditional knockout (KO) mice targeting the Oprm1 gene in GABAergic forebrain neurons. These mice (Dlx-MOR KO) show a major MOR deletion in the striatum, whereas receptors in midbrain (including the Ventral Tegmental Area or VTA) and hindbrain are intact. Here, we compared alcohol-drinking behavior and rewarding effects in total (MOR KO) and conditional KO mice. Concordant with our previous work, MOR KO mice drank less alcohol in continuous and intermittent two-bottle choice protocols. Remarkably, Dlx-MOR KO mice showed reduced drinking similar to MOR KO mice, demonstrating that MOR in the forebrain is responsible for the observed phenotype. Further, alcohol-induced conditioned place preference was detected in control but not MOR KO mice, indicating that MOR is essential for alcohol reward and again, Dlx-MOR KO recapitulated the MOR KO phenotype. Taste preference and blood alcohol levels were otherwise unchanged in mutant lines. Together, our data demonstrate that MOR expressed in forebrain GABAergic neurons is essential for alcohol reward-driven behaviors, including drinking and place conditioning. Challenging the prevailing VTA-centric hypothesis, this study reveals another mechanism of MOR-mediated alcohol reward and consumption, which does not necessarily require local VTA MORs but rather engages striatal MOR-dependent mechanisms.

Keywords: alcohol intake; forebrain GABAergic neurons; mu opioid receptor.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics*
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / administration & dosage*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • GABAergic Neurons / metabolism*
  • Mesencephalon / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Neostriatum / metabolism*
  • Prosencephalon / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / genetics*
  • Reward*
  • Rhombencephalon / metabolism
  • Self Administration
  • Ventral Tegmental Area / metabolism*


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Oprm protein, mouse
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Ethanol