Distribution of morphine and methadone to the brain in a developmental chicken embryo model

Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2023 Nov 15:479:116731. doi: 10.1016/j.taap.2023.116731. Epub 2023 Oct 20.


The use and/or misuse of opioids by pregnant women would expose the fetuses to these drugs during critical stages of development with serious effects for the newborn, like the neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). We have revisited an established chicken model for NAS to describe the distribution of morphine and methadone to the brain and explore its validity as a valuable alternative to rodent models. For this purpose, chicken eggs were injected with a single dose of 10 mg/kg or 20 mg/kg morphine or 20 mg/kg methadone onto the chorioallantoic membrane (CAM) on embryonal day 13. Whole brains and lungs were harvested and the concentrations of morphine, methadone and their subsequent metabolites (morphine-3-glucuronide and EDDP, respectively) determined in the brain and lungs at different time points using LC-MS/MS. Morphine and methadone, as well as their metabolites, were detected both in the brain and lungs, with significantly higher concentrations in the lungs. Pharmacokinetic modelling showed that the distribution of morphine to the brain followed a first-order absorption with transit compartments and linear elimination, with concentrations linearly dependent on dose. Moreover, methadone, but not morphine, reduced μ receptor (the main morphine receptor) binding, which can be of relevance for opioid tolerance. The present study is the first to report the brain distribution of morphine, which can be described by standard pharmacokinetic processes, and methadone in the developing chicken embryo. The present findings supplement the already established model and support the use of this chicken model to study NAS.

Keywords: Gallus gallus; Methadone; Morphine; NAS; Pharmacokinetics; μ receptor.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Chick Embryo
  • Chickens
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Methadone* / therapeutic use
  • Methadone* / toxicity
  • Morphine
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome* / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu