The role of enkephalinergic systems in substance use disorders

Front Syst Neurosci. 2022 Aug 5:16:932546. doi: 10.3389/fnsys.2022.932546. eCollection 2022.


Enkephalin, an endogenous opioid peptide, is highly expressed in the reward pathway and may modulate neurotransmission to regulate reward-related behaviors, such as drug-taking and drug-seeking behaviors. Drugs of abuse also directly increase enkephalin in this pathway, yet it is unknown whether or not changes in the enkephalinergic system after drug administration mediate any specific behaviors. The use of animal models of substance use disorders (SUDs) concurrently with pharmacological, genetic, and molecular tools has allowed researchers to directly investigate the role of enkephalin in promoting these behaviors. In this review, we explore neurochemical mechanisms by which enkephalin levels and enkephalin-mediated signaling are altered by drug administration and interrogate the contribution of enkephalin systems to SUDs. Studies manipulating the receptors that enkephalin targets (e.g., mu and delta opioid receptors mainly) implicate the endogenous opioid peptide in drug-induced neuroadaptations and reward-related behaviors; however, further studies will need to confirm the role of enkephalin directly. Overall, these findings suggest that the enkephalinergic system is involved in multiple aspects of SUDs, such as the primary reinforcing properties of drugs, conditioned reinforcing effects, and sensitization. The idea of dopaminergic-opioidergic interactions in these behaviors remains relatively novel and warrants further research. Continuing work to elucidate the role of enkephalin in mediating neurotransmission in reward circuitry driving behaviors related to SUDs remains crucial.

Keywords: circuitry; enkephalin; opioid; reward; substance use disorder.

Publication types

  • Review