Mu opioid receptors in the medial habenula contribute to naloxone aversion

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020 Jan;45(2):247-255. doi: 10.1038/s41386-019-0395-7. Epub 2019 Apr 20.


The medial habenula (MHb) is considered a brain center regulating aversive states. The mu opioid receptor (MOR) has been traditionally studied at the level of nociceptive and mesolimbic circuits, for key roles in pain relief and reward processing. MOR is also densely expressed in MHb, however, MOR function at this brain site is virtually unknown. Here we tested the hypothesis that MOR in the MHb (MHb-MOR) also regulates aversion processing. We used chnrb4-Cre driver mice to delete the Oprm1 gene in chnrb4-neurons, predominantly expressed in the MHb. Conditional mutant (B4MOR) mice showed habenula-specific reduction of MOR expression, restricted to chnrb4-neurons (50% MHb-MORs). We tested B4MOR mice in behavioral assays to evaluate effects of MOR activation by morphine, and MOR blockade by naloxone. Locomotor, analgesic, rewarding, and motivational effects of morphine were preserved in conditional mutants. In contrast, conditioned place aversion (CPA) elicited by naloxone was reduced in both naïve (high dose) and morphine-dependent (low dose) B4MOR mice. Further, physical signs of withdrawal precipitated by either MOR (naloxone) or nicotinic receptor (mecamylamine) blockade were attenuated. These data suggest that MORs expressed in MHb B4-neurons contribute to aversive effects of naloxone, including negative effect and aversive effects of opioid withdrawal. MORs are inhibitory receptors, therefore we propose that endogenous MOR signaling normally inhibits chnrb4-neurons of the MHb and moderates their known aversive activity, which is unmasked upon receptor blockade. Thus, in addition to facilitating reward at several brain sites, tonic MOR activity may also limit aversion within the MHb circuitry.

Publication types

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