The efficiency of descending pain modulation, commonly assessed with the conditioned pain modulation procedure, is diminished in patients with chronic pain. The authors hypothesized that the efficiency of pain modulation is controlled by cortical opioid circuits.
This study evaluated the effects of µ opioid receptor activation in the anterior cingulate cortex on descending control of nociception, a preclinical correlate of conditioned pain modulation, in male Sprague-Dawley rats with spinal nerve ligation–induced chronic pain or in sham-operated controls. Additionally, the study explored the consequences of respective activation or inhibition of κ opioid receptor in the anterior cingulate cortex of naive rats or animals with neuropathic pain. Descending control of nociception was measured as the hind paw withdrawal response to noxious pressure (test stimulus) in the absence or presence of capsaicin injection in the forepaw (conditioning stimulus).
Descending control of nociception was diminished in the ipsilateral, but not contralateral, hind paw of rats with spinal nerve ligation. Bilateral administration of morphine in the anterior cingulate cortex had no effect in shams but restored diminished descending control of nociception without altering hypersensitivity in rats with neuropathic pain. Bilateral anterior cingulate cortex microinjection of κ opioid receptor antagonists, including nor-binaltorphimine and navacaprant, also re-established descending control of nociception in rats with neuropathic pain without altering hypersensitivity and with no effect in shams. Conversely, bilateral injection of a κ opioid receptor agonist, U69,593, in the anterior cingulate cortex of naive rats inhibited descending control of nociception without altering withdrawal thresholds.
Anterior cingulate cortex κ opioid receptor activation therefore diminishes descending control of nociception both in naive animals and as an adaptive response to chronic pain, likely by enhancing net descending facilitation. Descending control of nociception can be restored by activation of μ opioid receptors in the anterior cingulate cortex, but also by κ opioid receptor antagonists, providing a nonaddictive alternative to opioid analgesics. Navacaprant is now in advanced clinical trials.
The prevalence and severity of chronic pain are influenced by endogenous pain control mechanisms
Opioids regulate the efficiency of endogenous pain control circuits including those arising in the anterior cingulate cortex
Microinjection of κ opioid receptor antagonists into the anterior cingulate cortex of nerve injured rats restored descending control of nociception, an endogenous pain control circuit
Microinjection of selective κ opioid receptor agonists reduced descending control of nociception in sham injured rats confirming the importance of the κ opioid receptor in regulating endogenous pain control