Background: The molecular mechanisms underlying both beneficial and undesirable opioid actions are poorly understood. Recently, the three currently known mammalian mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling cascades (extracellular signal-related kinase [ERK], stress-activated protein kinase, and p38 kinase) were shown to play important roles in transducing receptor-mediated signaling processes.
Methods: To determine whether any of these kinase cascades were activated by opioids, mu, delta, or kappa opioid receptors were transiently introduced into COS-7 cells together with MAPKs tagged to allow recognition by specific antibodies, and then exposed to opioids. Mitogen-activated protein kinase activation was determined by an in vitro MAPK activation assay. In addition, C6 glioma cells with either mu, delta, or kappa receptors stably introduced were exposed to opioids and MAPK activation determined by in vitro activation assay or antibody detection of activated forms.
Results: Transient experiments in COS cells revealed potent stimulation of ERK by mu and delta receptor activation, weak stimulation of stress-activated protein kinase by all receptor types, and no activation of p38. In stably transfected C6 glioma cells, only ERK activation was observed. Extracellular signal-related kinase induction was rapid, peaking 5 min after stimulation, and its activation was receptor-type specific. Mu and delta receptor stimulation activated ERK, but kappa stimulation did not.
Conclusions: These results show that acute opioid signaling is not only inhibitory, but can strongly activate an important signaling cascade. Extracellular signal-related kinase activation may contribute to desirable responses to opioids, such as analgesia and sedation, and also to undesirable adaptive responses, such as tolerance, physical dependence, and possibly addiction. Further study of this system could provide greater insight into the molecular mechanisms underlying these clinical problems.