Opioids such as morphine are mainstay treatments for clinical pain conditions. Itch is a common side effect of opioids, particularly as a result of epidural or intrathecal administration. Recent progress has advanced our understanding of itch circuits in the spinal cord. However, the mechanisms underlying opioid-induced itch are not fully understood, although an interaction between µ-opioid receptor (MOR) and gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) in spinal GRPR-expressing neurons has been implicated. In this study we investigated the cellular mechanisms of intrathecal opioid-induced itch by conditional deletion of MOR-encoding Oprm1 in distinct populations of interneurons and sensory neurons. We found that intrathecal injection of the MOR agonists morphine or DAMGO elicited dose-dependent scratching as well as licking and biting, but this pruritus was totally abolished in mice with a specific Oprm1 deletion in Vgat+ neurons [Oprm1-Vgat (Slc32a1)]. Loss of MOR in somatostatin+ interneurons and TRPV1+ sensory neurons did not affect morphine-induced itch but impaired morphine-induced antinociception. In situ hybridization revealed Oprm1 expression in 30% of inhibitory and 20% of excitatory interneurons in the spinal dorsal horn. Whole-cell recordings from spinal cord slices showed that DAMGO induced outward currents in 9 of 19 Vgat+ interneurons examined. Morphine also inhibited action potentials in Vgat+ interneurons. Furthermore, morphine suppressed evoked inhibitory postsynaptic currents in postsynaptic Vgat- excitatory neurons, suggesting a mechanism of disinhibition by MOR agonists. Notably, morphine-elicited itch was suppressed by intrathecal administration of NPY and abolished by spinal ablation of GRPR+ neurons with intrathecal injection of bombesin-saporin, whereas intrathecal GRP-induced itch response remained intact in mice lacking Oprm1-Vgat. Intrathecal bombesin-saporin treatment reduced the number of GRPR+ neurons by 97% in the lumber spinal cord and 91% in the cervical spinal cord, without changing the number of Oprm1+ neurons. Additionally, chronic itch from DNFB-induced allergic contact dermatitis was decreased by Oprm1-Vgat deletion. Finally, naloxone, but not peripherally restricted naloxone methiodide, inhibited chronic itch in the DNFB model and the CTCL model, indicating a contribution of central MOR signalling to chronic itch. Our findings demonstrate that intrathecal morphine elicits itch via acting on MOR on spinal inhibitory interneurons, leading to disinhibition of the spinal itch circuit. Our data also provide mechanistic insights into the current treatment of chronic itch with opioid receptor antagonist such as naloxone.
Keywords: inhibitory interneurons; itch; lymphoma; opioid; spinal cord.
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