Prenatal opioid exposure inhibits microglial sculpting of the dopamine system selectively in adolescent male offspring

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2022 Sep;47(10):1755-1763. doi: 10.1038/s41386-022-01376-4. Epub 2022 Jul 14.


The current opioid epidemic has dramatically increased the number of children who are prenatally exposed to opioids, including oxycodone. A number of social and cognitive abnormalities have been documented in these children as they reach young adulthood. However, little is known about the mechanisms underlying developmental effects of prenatal opioid exposure. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the brain, respond to acute opioid exposure in adulthood. Moreover, microglia are known to sculpt neural circuits during typical development. Indeed, we recently found that microglial phagocytosis of dopamine D1 receptors (D1R) in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) is required for the natural developmental decline in NAc-D1R that occurs between adolescence and adulthood in rats. This microglial pruning occurs only in males, and is required for the normal developmental trajectory of social play behavior. However, virtually nothing is known as to whether this developmental program is altered by prenatal exposure to opioids. Here, we show in rats that maternal oxycodone self-administration during pregnancy leads to reduced adolescent microglial phagocytosis of D1R and subsequently higher D1R density within the NAc in adult male, but not female, offspring. Finally, we show prenatal and adult behavioral deficits in opioid-exposed offspring, including impaired extinction of oxycodone-conditioned place preference in males. This work demonstrates for the first time that microglia play a key role in translating prenatal opioid exposure to changes in neural systems and behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Dopamine / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Nucleus Accumbens
  • Oxycodone / pharmacology
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1 / metabolism
  • Reward


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Dopamine D1
  • Oxycodone
  • Dopamine