Review of the role of the endogenous opioid and melanocortin systems in the restless legs syndrome

Brain. 2024 Jan 4;147(1):26-38. doi: 10.1093/brain/awad283.


Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is responsive to opioid, dopaminergic and iron-based treatments. Receptor blocker studies in RLS patients suggest that the therapeutic efficacy of opioids is specific to the opioid receptor and mediated indirectly through the dopaminergic system. An RLS autopsy study reveals decreases in endogenous opioids, β-endorphin and perhaps Met-enkephalin in the thalamus of RLS patients. A total opioid receptor knock-out (mu, delta and kappa) and a mu-opioid receptor knock-out mouse model of RLS show circadian motor changes akin to RLS and, although both models show sensory changes, the mu-opioid receptor knock mouse shows circadian sensory changes closest to those seen in idiopathic RLS. Both models show changes in striatal dopamine, anaemia and low serum iron. However, only in the total receptor knock-out mouse do we see the decreases in serum ferritin that are normally found in RLS. There are also decreases in serum iron when wild-type mice are administered a mu-opioid receptor blocker. In addition, the mu-opioid receptor knock-out mouse also shows increases in striatal zinc paralleling similar changes in RLS. Adrenocorticotropic hormone and α-melanocyte stimulating hormone are derived from pro-opiomelanocortin as is β-endorphin. However, they cause RLS-like symptoms and periodic limb movements when injected intraventricularly into rats. These results collectively suggest that an endogenous opioid deficiency is pathogenetic to RLS and that an altered melanocortin system may be causal to RLS as well.

Keywords: dopamine; endogenous opioid system; iron; periodic limb movements in sleep (PLMS); pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC); restless legs syndrome (RLS).

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / pharmacology
  • Analgesics, Opioid* / therapeutic use
  • Animals
  • Dopamine
  • Humans
  • Iron
  • Melanocortins / therapeutic use
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Restless Legs Syndrome* / diagnosis
  • Restless Legs Syndrome* / drug therapy
  • beta-Endorphin / therapeutic use


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Melanocortins
  • beta-Endorphin
  • Iron
  • Dopamine