PloS one

Chronic ethanol consumption in rats produces opioid antinociceptive tolerance through inhibition of mu opioid receptor endocytosis.

PMID 21602922


It is well known that the mu-opioid receptor (MOR) plays an important role in the rewarding properties of ethanol. However, it is less clear how chronic ethanol consumption affects MOR signaling. Here, we demonstrate that rats with prolonged voluntary ethanol consumption develop antinociceptive tolerance to opioids. Signaling through the MOR is controlled at many levels, including via the process of endocytosis. Importantly, agonists at the MOR that promote receptor endocytosis, such as the endogenous peptides enkephalin and β-endorphin, show a reduced propensity to promote antinociceptive tolerance than do agonists, like morphine, which do not promote receptor endocytosis. These observations led us to examine whether chronic ethanol consumption produced opioid tolerance by interfering with MOR endocytosis. Indeed, here we show that chronic ethanol consumption inhibits the endocytosis of MOR in response to opioid peptide. This loss of endocytosis was accompanied by a dramatic decrease in G protein coupled receptor kinase 2 (GRK2) protein levels after chronic drinking, suggesting that loss of this component of the trafficking machinery could be a mechanism by which endocytosis is lost. We also found that MOR coupling to G-protein was decreased in ethanol-drinking rats, providing a functional explanation for loss of opioid antinociception. Together, these results suggest that chronic ethanol drinking alters the ability of MOR to endocytose in response to opioid peptides, and consequently, promotes tolerance to the effects of opioids.