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Concept: Kappa Opioid receptor


This issue of Molecular Pharmacology is dedicated to Dr. Avram Goldstein, the journal’s founding Editor and one of the leaders in the development of modern pharmacology. This chapter focuses on his contributions to the discovery of the dynorphins and evidence that members of this family of opioid peptides are endogenous agonists for the kappa opioid receptor. In his original publication describing the purification and sequencing of dynorphin A, Avram described this peptide as ‘extraordinarily potent’ (‘dyn’ from the Greek, dynamis = power and ‘-orphin’ for endogenous morphine peptide). The name originally referred to its high affinity and great potency in the bioassay that was used to follow its activity during purification, but the name has come to have a second meaning: Studies of its physiological function in brain continue to provide powerful insights to the molecular mechanisms controlling the mood disorders and drug addiction. In the 30 years since its discovery, we have learned that the dynorphin peptides are released in brain during stress exposure. Once released, they activate kappa opioid receptors distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord where they trigger cellular responses resulting in different stress responses: analgesia, dysphoria-like behaviors, anxiety-like responses, and increased addiction behaviors in experimental animals. Avram predicted that a detailed molecular analysis of opiate drug actions would someday lead to better treatments for drug addiction, and he would be gratified to know that subsequent studies enabled by his discovery of the dynorphins resulted in insights that hold great promise for new treatments for addiction and depressive disorders.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Opioid receptor, Heroin, Buprenorphine, Endorphin, Codeine, Kappa Opioid receptor


The kappa opioid receptor (KOR) is widely expressed in the CNS and can serve as means to modulate pain perception, stress responses and affective reward states. Therefore, the KOR has become a prominent drug discovery target towards treating pain, depression and drug addiction. Agonists at KOR can promote G protein coupling and βarrestin2 recruitment as well as multiple downstream signaling pathways, including ERK1/2 MAP kinase activation. It has been suggested that the physiological effects of KOR activation result from different signaling cascades, with analgesia being G protein-mediated and dysphoria being mediated through βarrestin2 recruitment. Dysphoria associated with KOR activation limits the therapeutic potential in the use of KOR agonists as analgesics; therefore, it may be beneficial to develop KOR agonists that are biased towards G protein coupling and away from βarrestin2 recruitment. Here we describe two classes of biased KOR agonists that potently activate G protein coupling but weakly recruit βarrestin2. These potent functionally selective, small molecule compounds may prove to be useful tools for refining the therapeutic potential of KOR-directed signaling in vivo.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Receptor, Opioid, Morphine, Drug addiction, Opioid receptor, Buprenorphine, Kappa Opioid receptor


Kappa opioid receptors (KORs) are involved in a variety of aversive behavioral states, including anxiety. To date, a circuit-based mechanism for KOR-driven anxiety has not been described. Here, we show that activation of KORs inhibits glutamate release from basolateral amygdala (BLA) inputs to the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) and occludes the anxiolytic phenotype seen with optogenetic activation of BLA-BNST projections. In addition, deletion of KORs from amygdala neurons results in an anxiolytic phenotype. Furthermore, we identify a frequency-dependent, optically evoked local dynorphin-induced heterosynaptic plasticity of glutamate inputs in the BNST. We also find that there is cell type specificity to the KOR modulation of the BLA-BNST input with greater KOR-mediated inhibition of BLA dynorphin-expressing neurons. Collectively, these results provide support for a model in which local dynorphin release can inhibit an anxiolytic pathway, providing a discrete therapeutic target for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Concepts: DNA, Cell, Enzyme inhibitor, Opioid receptor, Inhibitor, Anxiety disorder, Alprazolam, Kappa Opioid receptor


RATIONALE: The interaction between repeated cocaine exposure and food restriction on sensitization to the stimulatory effects of cocaine has not been characterized. OBJECTIVES: To compare cocaine sensitization in rats free fed and food restricted, and begin to explore the role of the stress-responsive dynorphin/kappa opioid system. METHODS: Male rats were maintained for 10 days on two feeding conditions: free fed or food restricted (85 % of free fed weight). Test 1 of locomotor reactivity to cocaine (3, 9, or 15 mg/kg, IP) was followed by a sensitizing regimen of cocaine exposure (0 or 30 mg/kg/day × 5 days, IP), by a 10-day drug-free period, and by Test 2 of reactivity to the same cocaine dose. In a second experiment, rats received an injection of norbinaltorphimine (nor-BNI; 0, 5 or 20 mg/kg, SC) 10 days prior to each locomotion test, and plasma corticosterone (CORT) was assessed after Test 2. RESULTS: On Test 1, it was found that food restriction enhanced locomotor responses to all doses of cocaine. On Test 2, it was found that free fed and food restricted animals displayed similar sensitized responses to cocaine. This, however, was not observed in nor-BNI-treated rats. Furthermore, 20 mg/kg nor-BNI reduced both the locomotor response to cocaine on Test 2 and the effect of cocaine and food restriction on CORT plasma levels. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that the interaction between cocaine sensitization and food restriction is not synergistic, and that it involves activation of kappa-opioid receptors.

Concepts: Opioid receptor, Menthol, Kappa Opioid receptor, Butorphanol


Elevated ethanol use during adolescence, a potentially stressful developmental period, is accompanied by insensitivity to many aversive effects of ethanol relative to adults. Given evidence that supports a role for stress and the kappa opioid receptor (KOR) system in mediating aversive properties of ethanol and other drugs, the present study assessed the role of KOR antagonism by norbinaltorphimine (nor-BNI) on ethanol-induced conditioned taste aversion (CTA) in stressed (exposed to repeated restraint) and non-stressed male rats (Experiment 1), with half of the rats pretreated with nor-BNI before stressor exposure. In Experiment 2, CTA induced by the kappa agonist U62,066 was also compared in stressed and non-stressed adolescents and adults. A highly palatable solution (chocolate Boost) was used as the conditioned stimulus (CS), thereby avoiding the need for water deprivation to motivate consumption of the CS during conditioning. No effects of stress on ethanol-induced CTA were found, with all doses eliciting aversions in adolescents and adults in both stress conditions. However, among stressed subjects, adults given nor-BNI before the repeated stressor displayed blunted ethanol aversion relative to adults given saline at that time. This effect of nor-BNI was not seen in adolescents, findings that support a differential role for the KOR involvement in ethanol CTA in stressed adolescents and adults. Results from Experiment 2 revealed that all doses of U62,066 elicited aversions in non-stressed animals of both ages that were attenuated in stressed animals, findings that support a modulatory role for stress in aversive effects of KOR activation. Collectively, these results suggest that although KOR sensitivity appears to be reduced in stressed subjects, this receptor system does not appear to contribute to age differences in ethanol-induced CTA under the present test circumstances.

Concepts: Opioid receptor, Adolescence, Behaviorism, Classical conditioning, Menthol, Taste aversion, Kappa Opioid receptor, Butorphanol


The periaqueductal gray matter (PAG) is rich in mu and kappa opioid receptors, and this system is involved in thermoregulation, analgesia, and defensive behaviors. No study approached the involvement of the PAG opioids in body temperature (Tb) regulation during psychological stress such as restraint. Because activation of mu and kappa receptors increases and reduces Tb, respectively, we tested the hypothesis that they exert excitatory and inhibitory modulation, respectively, of the restraint-induced fever in rats. To this end, Tb, heat loss index (HLI, inference for peripheral vasoconstriction/vasodilation), and oxygen consumption (inference for thermogenesis) were monitored in unanesthetized rats, restrained or unrestrained, before and after intra-PAG microinjection of the selective mu opioid receptor antagonist (D-Phe-Cys-Tyr-D-Trp-Arg-Thr-Pen-Thr-NH2 cyclic, CTAP; 1 and 10 μg/100 nL) or the selective kappa opioid receptor antagonist (nor-binaltorphimine dihydrochloride, nor-BNI; 1 and 4 μg/100 nL) or saline (100 nL). CTAP and nor-BNI did not change the Tb or HLI of euthermic animals. During restraint, Tb increased (1.0 ± 0.1 °C) in all groups; however, this effect was lower in those animals treated with CTAP and higher in animals treated with nor-BNI. The HLI decreased during restraint and increased after animals were released, but this response was not affected by any treatment. Restraint stress increased oxygen consumption (35.9 ± 3.9% elevation), but this response was diminished by CTAP and overstimulated by nor-BNI. Confirming our hypothesis, the results indicate that the mu and kappa opioid receptors in the PAG of rats play a pyrogenic and antipyretic role, respectively, during fever induced by restraint by affecting the thermogenic but not the heat conservation effector.

Concepts: Receptor, Opioid, Receptor antagonist, Opioid receptor, Buprenorphine, Kappa Opioid receptor, Periaqueductal gray, Butorphanol


There is considerable evidence to suggest that drug actions at the kappa opioid receptor (KOR) may represent a means to control pain perception and modulate reward thresholds. As a G protein-coupled receptor (GPCR), the activation of KOR promotes Gαi/o protein coupling and the recruitment of βarrestins. It has become increasingly evident that GPCRs can transduce signals that originate independently via G protein pathways and βarrestin pathways; the ligand-dependent bifurcation of such signaling is referred to as ″functional selectivity″ or ″signaling bias.″ Recently, a KOR agonist, 6'-guanidinonaltrindole (6'-GNTI), was shown to display bias towards the activation of G protein-mediated signaling over βarrestin2 recruitment. Therefore, we investigated whether such ligand bias was preserved in striatal neurons. While the reference KOR agonist, U69,593 induces the phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and Akt, 6'-GNTI only activates the Akt pathway in striatal neurons. Using pharmacological tools and βarrestin2 knockout mice, we show that KOR-mediated ERK1/2 phosphorylation in striatal neurons requires βarrestin2, while Akt activation depends upon G protein signaling. These findings reveal a point of KOR signal bifurcation that can be observed in an endogenous neuronal setting and may prove to be an important indicator when developing biased agonists at the KOR.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Receptor, Receptor antagonist, Serotonin, Opioid receptor, Buprenorphine, G protein, Kappa Opioid receptor


Salvinorin-A is a terpene with agonist properties at the kappa-opioid receptor, the binding site of endogenous dynorphins. Salvinorin-A is found in Salvia divinorum, a psychoactive plant traditionally used by the Mazatec people of Oaxaca, Mexico, for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Previous studies with the plant and salvinorin-A have reported psychedelic-like changes in perception but also unusual changes in body awareness and detachment from external reality. Here we comprehensively studied the profile of subjective effects of increasing doses of salvinorin-A in healthy volunteers with special emphasis on interoception.

Concepts: Perception, Sensory system, Sense, Unsolved problems in neuroscience, Kappa Opioid receptor, Illusion, Salvia divinorum, Mazatec


Agonists targeting the kappa opioid receptor (KOR) have been promising therapeutic candidates because of their efficacy for treating intractable itch and relieving pain. Unlike typical opioid narcotics, KOR agonists do not produce euphoria or lead to respiratory suppression or overdose. However, they do produce dysphoria and sedation, side effects that have precluded their clinical development as therapeutics. KOR signaling can be fine-tuned to preferentially activate certain pathways over others, such that agonists can bias signaling so that the receptor signals through G proteins rather than other effectors such as βarrestin2. We evaluated a newly developed G protein signaling-biased KOR agonist in preclinical models of pain, pruritis, sedation, dopamine regulation, and dysphoria. We found that triazole 1.1 retained the antinociceptive and antipruritic efficacies of a conventional KOR agonist, yet it did not induce sedation or reductions in dopamine release in mice, nor did it produce dysphoria as determined by intracranial self-stimulation in rats. These data demonstrated that biased agonists may be used to segregate physiological responses downstream of the receptor. Moreover, the findings suggest that biased KOR agonists may present a means to treat pain and intractable itch without the side effects of dysphoria and sedation and with reduced abuse potential.

Concepts: Protein, Signal transduction, Physiology, Serotonin, Agonist, Opioid receptor, Buprenorphine, Kappa Opioid receptor


Salvinorin-A is a terpene found in the leaves of the plant Salvia divinorum. When administered to humans, salvinorin-A induces an intense but short-lasting modified state of awareness, sharing features with those induced by the classical serotonin-2A (5-HT2A) receptor agonist psychedelics. However, unlike substances such as psilocybin or mescaline, salvinorin-A shows agonist activity at the kappa-opioid receptor (KOR) rather than at the 5-HT2A receptor. Here we assessed the involvement of KOR- and 5-HT2A-agonism in the subjective, cardiovascular, and neuroendocrine effects of salvinorin-A in humans.

Concepts: Serotonin, Agonist, Kappa Opioid receptor, Salvia divinorum, Entheogen, 5-HT2A receptor, Ketanserin, Dimethyltryptamine