Background: Despite nearly 150 years of clinical use, the mechanism(s) of action of nitrous oxide (N2O) remains in doubt. In some but not all studies the analgesic properties of N2O can be attenuated by opiate receptor antagonists. The purported mechanism for the opiate antagonistic effect relates to the finding that N2O increases supraspinal levels of endogenous opiates, although this finding has been disputed. Based on the observations that (1) N2O promotes the release of catecholamines, including the endogenous alpha 2 adrenergic agonist norepinephrine, and (2) that descending noradrenergic inhibitory pathways are activated by opioid analgesics, this study sought to determine whether alpha 2 adrenergic receptors are involved in the antinociceptive action of nitrous oxide.
Methods: Institutional approval was obtained for the study. Rats breathed 70% N2O and 30% O2 in an enclosed chamber. After a 30-min exposure, significant antinociception was indicated by an increase in the latency response to a noxious stimulus (tail-flick latency). The tail-flick latency was tested in rats exposed to 70% N2O after either systemic or regional (intrathecal or intracerebroventricular) injections with either competitive (atipamezole; yohimbine) or noncompetitive (N-ethoxycarbonyl-2-ethoxy-1,2-dihydroquinoline) alpha 2 adrenoceptor antagonists, or the opiate receptor antagonist naloxone.
Results: When administered systemically, both the opiate (naloxone) and alpha 2 adrenoceptor antagonists (atipamezole, yohimbine, and N-ethoxycarbonyl-2-ethoxy-1,2-dihydroquinoline) blocked the enhanced tail-flick latency response to N2O-Naloxone administered intracerebroventricularly, but not intrathecally, blocked the enhanced tail-flick latency response to N2O. Conversely, atipamezole administered intrathecally, but not intracerebroventricularly, blocked the enhanced tail-flick latency response to N2O.
Conclusions: These data suggest that both supraspinal opiate and spinal alpha 2 adrenoceptors play a mediating role in the antinociceptive response to N2O in rats. A possible mechanism may involve a descending inhibitory noradrenergic pathway that may be activated by opiate receptors in the periaqueductal gray region of the brain stem in the rat after exposure to N2O.