Pain-facilitating medullary neurons contribute to opioid-induced respiratory depression

Ryan S. Phillips, Daniel R. Cleary, Julia W. Nalwalk, Seksiri Arttamangkul, Lindsay B. Hough, Mary M. Heinricher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Respiratory depression is a therapy-limiting side effect of opioid analgesics, yet our understanding of the brain circuits mediating this potentially lethal outcome remains incomplete. Here we studied the contribution of the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM), a region long implicated in pain modulation and homeostatic regulation, to opioidinduced respiratory depression. Microinjection of the μ-opioid agonist DAMGO in the RVM of lightly anesthetized rats produced both analgesia and respiratory depression, showing that neurons in this region can modulate breathing. Blocking opioid action in the RVM by microinjecting the opioid antagonist naltrexone reversed the analgesic and respiratory effects of systemically administered morphine, showing that this region plays a role in both the analgesic and respiratorydepressant properties of systemically administered morphine. The distribution of neurons directly inhibited by RVM opioid microinjection was determined with a fluorescent opioid peptide, dermorphin- Alexa 594, and found to be concentrated in and around the RVM. The non-opioid analgesic improgan, like DAMGO, produced antinociception but, unlike DAMGO, stimulated breathing when microinjected into the RVM. Concurrent recording of RVM neurons during improgan microinjection showed that this agent activated RVM ON-cells, OFF-cells, and NEUTRAL-cells. Since opioids are known to activate OFF-cells but suppress ON-cell firing, the differential respiratory response to these two analgesic drugs is best explained by their opposing effects on the activity of RVM ON-cells. These findings show that pain relief can be separated pharmacologically from respiratory depression and identify RVM OFF-cells as important central targets for continued development of potent analgesics with fewer side effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2393-2404
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Nov 1 2012


  • Analgesia
  • Improgan
  • Pain modulation
  • Rat
  • Rostral ventromedial medulla

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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