A Cure for Opioid Addiction?

A Cure for Opioid Addiction?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are related to the natural compounds found in the opium poppy. Heroin is an illegal opioid drug, but there are also prescription opioids like morphine and oxycodone that can create severe addictions in users. New and exciting research conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado and at the University of Adelaide in Australia has great potential for preventing devastating addictions to opioid drugs and for creating breakthrough treatments for those who are already addicted. By shifting the focus of opioid action in the body from the nervous system to the immune system, the researchers have made an amazing discovery.

Opioids and Addiction


The compounds present in the opium poppy have been known to have medicinal properties for thousands of years. They also have psychoactive effects on the user, creating a high and, in many cases, leading to addiction. Morphine is a compound that is found in the opium poppy and is used as a painkiller. Over the last 100 years, researchers have modified morphine to create new compounds that also relieve pain. This includes heroin, which being highly addictive and dangerous, quickly became illegal. It is now used only illicitly and not as a medicine.

Besides deriving from a flower, all opioids have in common the fact that they act on certain receptors in the central nervous system. These are called opioid receptors, and, when triggered by an opioid drug, they cause a flood of a neurotransmitter (a brain chemical) called dopamine. This is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel a pleasurable sensation. The potent feeling created by an opioid drug often lead to the user taking more of the drug to get the feeling again. With subsequent use, the dopamine-signaling pathways in the brain actually change, and the person begins to become tolerant to the drug. This means the user must ingest more and more of the drug to get a high, and this often becomes addiction.

Addiction to heroin is considered to be a problem of the poor, the troubled, and the mentally ill. However, addiction to other opioids, largely prescriptions, is a rising problem that affects people from all walks of life. The National Institutes of Health states that around 9 percent of the U.S. population has abused opioids at one point in time.

The Research

What the current study from Colorado and Australia has found is that there are other, important receptors in the body for opioid drugs, and that by targeting those receptors, addiction may be preventable at the very least. This study could possibly also lead to innovative treatments for those who are already addicted. The results of the study showed that not only could the addiction to these drugs be blocked, but by doing so, they increased the level of pain relief.

The researchers decided to look to the immune system for their work. Because 90 percent of brain cells are involved in the immune system, they concluded that drug addiction could possibly be related to the body’s immune response. They were successful in making the connection and found a receptor in the immune system called TLR4. The receptor targets bacteria, but the researchers also found that it recognizes the morphine molecule. When morphine attaches to TLR4, the immune system turns on the dopamine pathway and creates the euphoric feeling.

By creating a drug that blocks the TLR4 receptor, called (+)-naloxone, the researchers found that this pathway was shut down and the user no longer felt the urge to take more morphine. The drug effectively shuts down the mechanism through which addiction occurs. As a side effect of the new drug, the researchers found that this shut down actually increased morphine’s ability to relieve pain in the patient using it.

The Future

The work conducted by the American and Australian researchers is in very early stages, but it shows great promise for creating painkillers or supplementing opioid pain killers in such a way that addiction is prevented. Most of the people who are addicted to opioids started out using prescription medications and never intended to abuse them or to become addicted. If this addiction can be prevented, many people can find relief from chronic and severe pain without this dangerous side effect.

There is also great potential with this finding that new treatments may be created to help addicts, both those who have abused prescription painkillers as well as those dealing with the devastating effects of a heroin addiction.

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