Role of the mu-opioid receptor in opioid modulation of immune function

Jana Ninković, Sabita Roy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

137 Scopus citations


Endogenous opioids are synthesized in vivo to modulate pain mechanisms and inflammatory pathways. Endogenous and exogenous opioids mediate analgesia in response to painful stimuli by binding to opioid receptors on neuronal cells. However, wide distribution of opioid receptors on tissues and organ systems outside the CNS, such as the cells of the immune system, indicate that opioids are capable of exerting additional effects in the periphery, such as immunomodulation. The increased prevalence of infections in opioid abuser-based epidemiological studies further highlights the immunosuppressive effects of opioids. In spite of their many debilitating side effects, prescription opioids remain a gold standard for treatment of chronic pain. Therefore, given the prevalence of opioid use and abuse, opioid-mediated immune suppression presents a serious concern in our society today. It is imperative to understand the mechanisms by which exogenous opioids modulate immune processes. In this review, we will discuss the role of opioid receptors and their ligands in mediating immune-suppressive functions. We will summarize recent studies on direct and indirect opioid modulation of the cells of the immune system, as well as the role of opioids in exacerbation of certain disease states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-24
Number of pages16
JournalAmino Acids
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health grants NIH NIDA/5F31-DA026264, T32 DA07097 (J.N.) and RO1 DA12104, RO1 DA022935, KO2 DA015349, P50 DA11806 (S.R.).


  • Immunosuppression
  • Morphine
  • Opioid
  • Opioid receptors


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