Distinct effects of individual opioids on the morphology of spines depend upon the internalization of mu opioid receptors

Dezhi Liao, Olga O. Grigoriants, Wei Wang, Katie Wiens, Horace H. Loh, Ping Yee Law

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49 Scopus citations


This study has examined the relationship between the effects of opioids on the internalization of mu opioid receptors (MORs) and the morphology of dendritic spines. Several opioids (morphine, etorphine, DAMGO or methadone) were applied to cultured hippocampal neurons. Live imaging and biochemical techniques were used to examine the dynamic changes in MOR internalization and spine morphology. This study reveals that MOR internalization can regulate opioid-induced morphological changes in dendritic spines: (1) Chronic treatment with morphine, which induced minimal receptor internalization, caused collapse of dendritic spines. In contrast, "internalizing" opioids such as DAMGO and etorphine induced the emergence of new spines. It reveals that opioid-induced changes in spines vary greatly depending on how the applied opioid agonist affects MOR internalization. (2) The blockade of receptor internalization by dominant negative mutant of dynamin, K44E, reversed the effects of DAMGO and etorphine. It indicates that receptor internalization is necessary for the distinct effects of DAMGO and etorphine on spines. (3) In neurons that were cultured from MOR knock-out mice and had been co-transfected with DsRed and MOR-GFP, morphine caused collapse of spines whereas DAMGO induced emergence of new spines, indicating that opioids can alter the structure of spines via postsynaptic MORs. (4) Methadone at a low concentration induced minimal internalization and had effects that were similar to morphine. At a high concentration, methadone induced robust internalization and had effects that are opposite to morphine. The concentration-dependent opioid-induced changes in dendritic spines might also contribute to the variation in the effects of individual opioids.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)456-469
Number of pages14
JournalMolecular and Cellular Neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Drs. Janet Dubinsky, George Wilcox and David Redish for their helpful comments, and Mr. Eric Nordstrom and Mr. Paul Higgins for their technical support. This study is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (R01DA020582) and a grant from the Whitehall Foundation, a grant from McManus Trust for Drug Abuse and a grant from the Minnesota Medical Foundation to DL. This study is also supported by NIDA grants DA01806, DA007339, DA000564, DA016674, K05-DA70554 and K05-DA000513 to HHL and PYL respectively.


  • Addiction
  • Dentritic spines
  • Opioid receptor
  • Receptor internalization
  • Synaptic plasticity


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