Impact of chronic migraine attacks and their severity on the endogenous μ-opioid neurotransmission in the limbic system

Neuroimage Clin. 2019;23:101905. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2019.101905. Epub 2019 Jun 18.


Objective: To evaluate, in vivo, the impact of ongoing chronic migraine (CM) attacks on the endogenous μ-opioid neurotransmission.

Background: CM is associated with cognitive-emotional dysfunction. CM is commonly associated with frequent acute medication use, including opioids.

Methods: We scanned 15 migraine patients during the spontaneous headache attack (ictal phase): 7 individuals with CM and 8 with episodic migraine (EM), as well as 7 healthy controls (HC), using positron emission tomography (PET) with the selective μ-opioid receptor (μOR) radiotracer [11C]carfentanil. Migraineurs were scanned in two paradigms, one with thermal pain threshold challenge applied to the site of the headache, and one without thermal challenge. Multivariable analysis was performed between the μ-opioid receptor availability and the clinical data.

Results: μOR availability, measured with [11C]carfentanil nondisplaceable binding potential (BPND), in the left thalamus (P-value = 0.005) and left caudate (P-value = 0.003) were decreased in CM patients with thermal pain threshold during the ictal phase relative to HC. Lower μOR BPND in the right parahippocampal region (P-value = 0.001) and right amygdala (P-value = 0.002) were seen in CM relative to EM patients. Lower μOR BPND values indicate either a decrease in μOR concentration or an increase in endogenous μ-opioid release in CM patients. In the right amygdala, 71% of the overall variance in μOR BPND levels was explained by the type of migraine (CM vs. EM: partial-R2 = 0.47, P-value<0.001, Cohen's effect size d = 2.6SD), the severity of the attack (pain area and intensity number summation [P.A.I.N.S.]: partial-R2 = 0.16, P-value = 0.031), and the thermal pain threshold (allodynia: partial-R2 = 0.08).

Conclusions: Increased endogenous μ-opioid receptor-mediated neurotransmission is seen in the limbic system of CM patients, especially in right amygdala, which is highly modulated by the attack frequency, pain severity, and sensitivity. This study demonstrates for the first time the negative impact of chronification and exacerbation of headache attacks on the endogenous μ-opioid mechanisms of migraine patients. identifier: NCT03004313.

Keywords: Central pain; MRI; Migraine; Opioid; PET; Thermal pain threshold.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Amygdala / metabolism*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacokinetics
  • Caudate Nucleus / diagnostic imaging
  • Caudate Nucleus / metabolism
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Fentanyl / analogs & derivatives
  • Fentanyl / pharmacokinetics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Migraine Disorders / metabolism*
  • Migraine Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Nociception / physiology*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / diagnostic imaging
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / metabolism*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Radiopharmaceuticals / pharmacokinetics
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism*
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • carfentanil
  • Fentanyl

Associated data