While opioids are a powerful class of drugs that inhibit transmission of pain signals, their use is tarnished by the current epidemic of opioid use disorder (OUD) and overdose deaths. Notwithstanding published reports, there remain gaps in our knowledge of opioid receptor mechanisms and their role in opioid seeking behavior. Thus, novel insights into molecular, neurogenetic and neuropharmacological bases of OUD are needed. We propose that an addictive endophenotype may not be entirely specific to the drug of choice but rather may be generalizable to altered brain reward circuits impacting net mesocorticolimbic dopamine release. We suggest that genetic or epigenetic alterations across dopaminergic reward systems lead to uncontrollable self-administration of opioids and other drugs. For instance, diminished availability via knockout of dopamine D3 receptor (DRD3) increases vulnerability to opioids. Building upon this concept via the use of a sophisticated polymorphic risk analysis in a human cohort of chronic opioid users, we found evidence for a higher frequency of polymorphic DRD3 risk allele (rs6280) than opioid receptor µ1 (rs1799971). In conclusion, while opioidergic mechanisms are involved in OUD, dopamine-related receptors may have primary influence on opioid-seeking behavior in African Americans. These findings suggest OUD-targeted novel and improved neuropharmacological therapies may require focus on DRD3-mediated regulation of dopaminergic homeostasis.
Keywords: African American; DRD3; GARS; OPRM1; brain reward cascade; dopaminergic mechanisms; epigenetics; genetic variations; mesolimbic circuitry; opioid epidemic; opioids.