Cerebral Organoids to Study Central Mechanisms of Pain: The Effect of Stem Cell Secretome on Opioid Receptors and Neuroplasticity

Stem Cells Dev. 2022 Oct;31(19-20):641-657. doi: 10.1089/scd.2022.0116.


Over 90% of chronic pain (CP) patients receive opioids-based treatments, which led to a public health crisis with lasting impacts on social and economic wellbeing based on opioid addiction. Opioids act through activation of μ (MOR), δ (DOR), and κ (KOR) opioid receptors, which are broadly and differentially distributed throughout the brain. Chronic opioid consumption leads to brain changes such as alterations on neurotransmission, dendritic branching, and spine density, as well as an increase in apoptosis. To overcome opioid-related issues, extensive efforts have been made to search for an alternative treatment. Bioactive molecules secreted by stem cells, collectively known as secretome, have shown a positive impact in different pain models. However, there is a lack of studies on the role of secretome in modulating opioid receptors. By using cerebral organoids (CeO), a self-organized, functional, and multicellular 3D structure that resemble the brain, we were able to identify MOR, DOR, and KOR at different stages of maturation. Treatment with secretome increased MOR expression highlighting a possible role in pain signaling mechanisms. Opioid treatments did not impact the expression of neuronal maturation markers but together with secretome, they increased astrogliogenesis. Opioid-treated organoids presented higher dopamine secretion recapitulating an important physiological event after opioid exposure. This work demonstrates that CeO is an important model system for the study of opioid signaling with potential implications to the understanding of basic mechanisms related to pain physiology.

Keywords: addiction; brain organoids; cerebral organoids; neurodifferentiation; opioid receptors; pain; secretome; stem cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / metabolism
  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Organoids / metabolism
  • Pain / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid* / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta* / metabolism
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / metabolism
  • Secretome
  • Stem Cells / metabolism


  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Dopamine