Endogenous opioid peptides and brain development: Endomorphin-1 and Nociceptin play a sex-specific role in the control of oligodendrocyte maturation and brain myelination

Glia. 2020 Jul;68(7):1513-1530. doi: 10.1002/glia.23799. Epub 2020 Feb 17.


The generation of fully functional oligodendrocytes, the myelinating cells of the central nervous system, is preceded by a complex maturational process. We previously showed that the timing of oligodendrocyte differentiation and rat brain myelination were altered by perinatal exposure to buprenorphine and methadone, opioid analogs used for the management of pregnant addicts. Those observations suggested the involvement of the μ-opioid receptor (MOR) and the nociceptin/orphanin FQ receptor (NOR). However, it remained to be determined if these receptors and their endogenous ligands could indeed control the timing of myelination under normal physiological conditions of brain development. We now found that the endogenous MOR ligand endomorphin-1 (EM-1) exerts a striking stimulatory action on cellular and morphological maturation of rat pre-oligodendrocytes, but unexpectedly, these effects appear to be restricted to the cells from the female pups. Critically, this stimulation is abolished by coincubation with the endogenous NOR ligand nociceptin. Furthermore, NOR antagonist treatment of 9-day-old female pups results in accelerated brain myelination. Interestingly, the lack of sex-dependent differences in developmental brain levels of EM-1 and nociceptin, or oligodendroglial expression of MOR and NOR, suggests that the observed sex-specific responses may be highly dependent on important intrinsic differences between the male and female oligodendrocytes. The discovery of a significant effect of EM-1 and nociceptin in the developing female oligodendrocytes and brain myelination, underscores the need for further studies investigating brain sex-related differences and their implications in opioid use and abuse, pain control, and susceptibility and remyelinating capacity in demyelinating disease as multiple sclerosis.

Keywords: endomorphin-1; myelination; nociceptin; nociceptin receptor; oligodendrocytes; sexual dimorphism; μ-opioid receptor.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / metabolism
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Oligodendroglia / metabolism*
  • Opioid Peptides / metabolism*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Receptors, Opioid / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism
  • Sex Factors*


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Opioid Peptides
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu