The opioid-cytokine connection

J Neuroimmunol. 1998 Mar 15;83(1-2):63-9. doi: 10.1016/s0165-5728(97)00222-1.


Opioids (exogenous opiates and endogenous opioid peptides) have a diversity of effects on the immune system. Although numerous studies have shown that opioid-induced immunosuppression can be mediated indirectly via the central nervous system (CNS) or through direct interactions with immunocytes, the precise cellular mechanisms underlying the immunomodulatory effects of opioids are largely unknown. In recent years, investigations from several laboratories have indicated that opioids can operate as cytokines, the principal communication signals of the immune system. All of the major properties of cytokines are shared by opioids, i.e., production by immune cells with paracrine, autocrine, and endocrine sites of action, functional redundancy, pleiotropy and effects that are both dose- and time-dependent. Studies of the effects of opioids on peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) or brain cells cocultured with HIV-infected cells suggest that some of the immunoregulatory actions of opioids are mediated by ultrahigh affinity receptors on PBMC and glial cells. Because the CNS is populated predominantly by astroglia and microglia which have properties of immune cells, it is possible that certain of the CNS effects of opioids involve cytokine-like interactions with glial cells. Although there is mounting evidence supporting the concept that opioids are members of the cytokine family, the relative contribution of the opioids to immunoregulation remains unclear. The importance of opiate addiction in the AIDS epidemic means that gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms of opioid-induced immunomodulation is of more than academic interest.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytokines / immunology*
  • Morphine / immunology
  • Morphine / pharmacology
  • Narcotics / immunology
  • Narcotics / pharmacology
  • Neuroglia / chemistry
  • Neuroglia / immunology
  • Neuroimmunomodulation / drug effects
  • Neuroimmunomodulation / immunology*
  • Opioid Peptides / immunology*
  • Receptors, Opioid / immunology*


  • Cytokines
  • Narcotics
  • Opioid Peptides
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Morphine