Humans and mice with natural red hair have elevated basal pain thresholds and an increased sensitivity to opioid analgesics. We investigated the mechanisms responsible for higher nociceptive thresholds in red-haired mice resulting from a loss of melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) function and found that the increased thresholds are melanocyte dependent but melanin independent. MC1R loss of function decreases melanocytic proopiomelanocortin transcription and systemic melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) levels in the plasma of red-haired (Mc1re/e ) mice. Decreased peripheral α-MSH derepresses the central opioid tone mediated by the opioid receptor OPRM1, resulting in increased nociceptive thresholds. We identified MC4R as the MSH-responsive receptor that opposes OPRM1 signaling and the periaqueductal gray area in the brainstem as a central area of opioid/melanocortin antagonism. This work highlights the physiologic role of melanocytic MC1R and circulating melanocortins in the regulation of nociception and provides a mechanistic framework for altered opioid signaling and pain sensitivity in red-haired individuals.
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