The clinical effectiveness of opioid maintenance for heroin dependence is believed to result from a medication's ability to decrease μ-opioid receptor (μOR) availability thereby replacing agonist effects, alleviating withdrawal symptoms and attenuating heroin effects. We empirically tested this hypothesis in five heroin-dependent volunteers who were successively maintained on 32, 16, 2, and 0 mg daily buprenorphine (BUP) tablet doses. We predicted and confirmed that higher BUP doses would decrease in vivo μOR availability (measured with PET and [11C]carfentanil), increase plasma levels of BUP and its metabolite nor-BUP, and decrease withdrawal symptoms and hydromorphone (HYD) responses. Relative to placebo, BUP significantly decreased mean (±SEM) whole-brain μOR availability 41±8, 80±2, and 84±2% at 2, 16, and 32 mg, respectively. Regions of interest (ROIs) (prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, thalamus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, caudate) showed similar dose-dependent effects. Changes in μOR availability varied across ROIs (prefrontal cortex, 47% vs amygdala, 27%) at BUP 2 mg, but were more homogeneous across ROIs at BUP 32 mg (94–98%; except thalamus, 88%). Relative to placebo (0 ng/ml), peak plasma levels of BUP and nor-BUP were comparable and dose-dependent (0.5–1, 5–6, and 13–14 ng/ml at 2, 16, and 32 mg, respectively). μOR availability decreases were negatively correlated with BUP plasma level and positively correlated with questionnaire-based opioid withdrawal symptoms and attenuation of HYD symptoms. These findings suggest that high-dose BUP maintenance produces near-maximal μOR occupation, μOR availability correlates well with plasma levels, and BUP-related opioid symptoms and antagonist blockade exhibit concentration–effect relationships.
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USPHS Grants P50 DA00254 and R01 DA10100 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a research grant (Joe Young, Sr) from the State of Michigan supported this research.
We thank Dr John Hopper for medical oversight, Ken Bates for recruitment, Ja'Near Mathis for urine testing, Nancy Lockhart, Teresa Woike, and Suzanne Manji for scheduling, and Debra Kish, Rebecca Cohn, and Josh Bueller for data management. We thank the staff of the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit at Wayne State University for blood sample and clinical data collection and observation.
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