Opioid-induced respiratory effects include aspiration and difficulty swallowing, suggesting impairment of the upper airways. The pontine Kölliker-Fuse nucleus (KF) controls upper airway patency and regulates respiration, in particular the inspiratory/expiratory phase transition. Given the importance of the KF in coordinating respiratory pattern, the mechanisms of μ opioid receptor activation in this nucleus were investigated at the systems and cellular level. In anaesthetized, vagi-intact rats, injection of opioid agonists DAMGO or [Met5]enkephalin (ME) into the KF reduced respiratory frequency and amplitude. The μ opioid agonist DAMGO applied directly into the KF of the in situ arterially perfused working heart-brainstem preparation of rat resulted in robust apneusis (lengthened low amplitude inspiration due to loss of post-inspiratory drive) that was rapidly reversed by the opioid antagonist naloxone. In brain slice preparations, activation of μ opioid receptors on KF neurons hyperpolarized a distinct population (61%) of neurons. As expected, the opioid-induced hyperpolarization reduced the excitability of the neuron in response to either current injection or local application of glutamate. In voltage-clamp recordings the outward current produced by the opioid agonist ME was concentration dependent, reversed at the potassium equilibrium potential and was blocked by BaCl2, characteristics of a G protein-coupled inwardly rectifying potassium (GIRK) conductance. The clinically used drug morphine produced an outward current in KF neurons with similar potency to morphine-mediated currents in locus coeruleus brain slice preparations. Thus, the population of KF neurons that are hyperpolarized by μ opioid agonists are likely mediators of the opioid-induced loss of post-inspiration and induction of apneusis.
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