Opioid-induced respiratory depression in humans: a review of pharmacokinetic-pharmacodynamic modelling of reversal

Br J Anaesth. 2019 Jun;122(6):e168-e179. doi: 10.1016/j.bja.2018.12.023. Epub 2019 Feb 1.


Background: Opioids are potent painkillers but come with serious adverse effects ranging from addiction to potentially lethal respiratory depression. A variety of drugs with separate mechanisms of action are available to prevent or reverse opioid-induced respiratory depression (OIRD).

Methods: The authors reviewed human studies on reversal of OIRD using models that describe and predict the time course of pharmacokinetics (PK) and pharmacodynamics (PD) of opioids and reversal agents and link PK to PD.

Results: The PKPD models differ in their basic structure to capture the specific pharmacological mechanisms by which reversal agents interact with opioid effects on breathing. The effect of naloxone, a competitive opioid receptor antagonist, is described by the combined effect-compartment receptor-binding model to quantify rate limitation at the level of drug distribution and receptor kinetics. The effects of reversal agents that act through non-opioidergic pathways, such as ketamine and the experimental drug GAL021, are described by physiological models, in which stimulants act at CO2 chemosensitivity, CO2-independent ventilation, or both. The PKPD analyses show that although all reversal strategies may be effective under certain circumstances, there are conditions at which reversal is less efficacious and sometimes even impossible.

Conclusions: Model-based drug development is needed to design an 'ideal' reversal agent-that is, one that is not influenced by opioid receptor kinetics, does not interfere with opioid analgesia, has a rapid onset of action with long-lasting effects, and is devoid of adverse effects.

Keywords: breathing; naloxone; opioids; pharmacodynamics; pharmacokinetics; respiratory depression.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Carotid Body / drug effects
  • Doxapram / pharmacology
  • Drug Design
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Naloxone / pharmacology
  • Narcotic Antagonists / pharmacology*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / chemically induced*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / prevention & control
  • Triazines / pharmacology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Narcotic Antagonists
  • Triazines
  • Naloxone
  • GAL021
  • Doxapram