Several laboratories recently identified a 17 amino-acid peptide, termed 'nociceptin' or 'orphanin FQ (OFQ)', as the endogenous ligand for the LC132 (or 'opioid receptor-like1') receptor. Taken together with the fact that the cellular effects of OFQ are to a large extent opioid-like, the close relationship between the LC132 receptor and known opioid receptors raised expectations that the behavioral effects of this peptide would resemble those of opioids. However studies of the role of OFQ in nociception have not provided a unified view. The aim of the present study was to use a combination of electrophysiological and pharmacological techniques to characterize the actions of OFQ in a brain region in which the circuitry mediating the analgesic actions of opioids has been relatively well characterized, the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM). Single-cell recording was combined with opioid administration and local infusion of OFQ in the RVM of rats lightly anesthetized with barbiturates. The tail flick reflex was used as a behavioral index of nociceptive responsiveness. Two classes of physiologically identifiable RVM neurons with distinct responses to opioids have been characterized. OFF-cells are activated, although indirectly, by opioids, and there is strong evidence that this activation is crucial to opioid antinociception. ON-cells, thought to enable nociception, are directly inhibited by opioids. Cells of a third class, NEUTRAL cells, do not respond to opioids and whether or not they have any role in nociceptive modulation remains an open question. OFQ infused within the RVM profoundly suppressed the firing of all classes of RVM neurons, blocking opioid-induced activation of OFF-cells. The antinociceptive effects of a μ-opioid agonist infused at the same site were significantly attenuated in these animals. Those of systemically administered morphine, which can produce its antinociceptive effects by acting at a number of CNS sites, were not blocked by RVM OFQ. Inasmuch as activation of OFF-cells can account for the antinociceptive action of opioids within the RVM, these results demonstrate that, at least within the medulla, OFQ can exert a functional 'antiopioid' effect by suppressing firing of this cell class. However to the extent that antinociceptive and pronociceptive outflows from various brain regions involved in both transmission and modulation of nociception are active under different conditions, focal application of OFQ in different regions could potentially produce either hypalgesia or hyperalgesia.
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