How opioids inhibit GABA-mediated neurotransmission


The midbrain region periaqueductal grey (PAG) is rich in opioid receptors and endogenous opioids and is a major target of analgesic action in the central nervous system1. It has been proposed that the analgesic effect of opioids on the PAG works by suppressing the inhibitory influence of the neurotransmitter GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) on neurons that form part of a descending antinociceptive pathway2. Opioids inhibit GABA-mediated (GABAergic) synaptic transmission in the PAG and other brain regions by reducing the probability of presynaptic neurotransmitter release3,4, but the mechanisms involved remain uncertain. Here we report that opioid inhibition of GABAergic synaptic currents in the PAG is controlled by a presynaptic voltage-dependent potassium conductance. Opioid receptors of the μ type in GABAergic presynaptic terminals are specifically coupled to this potassium conductance by a pathway involving phospholipase A2, arachidonic acid and 12-lipoxygenase. Furthermore, opioid inhibition of GABAergic synaptic transmission is potentiated by inhibitors of the enzymes cyclooxygenase and 5-lipoxygenase, presumably because more arachidonic acid is available for conversion to 12-lipoxygenase products. These mechanisms account for the analgesic action of cyclooxygenase inhibitors in the PAG5 and their synergism with opioids6.

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Figure 1: Effect of K+ conductance blockade on GABAergic synaptic transmission.
Figure 3: Potentiation of opioid inhibition of GABAergic synaptic transmission by cyclooxygenase and 5-lipoxygenase blockade.
Figure 2: Effect of second messenger modulation on GABAergic synaptic transmission.


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We thank J. P. Seale for reading the manuscript and K. Earle for help with the analysis. This work was supported by the NH and MRC of Australia and Human Frontiers in Science Program (S.L.I.).

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Correspondence to C. W. Vaughan.

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Vaughan, C., Ingram, S., Connor, M. et al. How opioids inhibit GABA-mediated neurotransmission. Nature 390, 611–614 (1997).

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