Opioid partial agonist buprenorphine dampens responses to psychosocial stress in humans.

PMID 25544740


Pre-clinical and clinical evidence indicates that opioid drugs have stress-dampening effects. In animal models, opioid analgesics attenuate responses to isolation distress, and in humans, opioids reduce stress related to anticipation of physical pain. The stress-reducing effects of opioid drugs may contribute to their abuse potential. Despite this evidence in laboratory animals, the effects of opioids on responses to psychosocial stress have not been determined in humans. Here we examined the effects of buprenorphine, a μ-opioid partial agonist used to treat opioid dependence and pain, on subjective and physiological responses to a stressful public speaking task in healthy adults. We hypothesized that buprenorphine would reduce subjective and physiological stress responses. Healthy adult volunteers (N=48) were randomly assigned to receive placebo, 0.2mg sublingual buprenorphine, or 0.4mg sublingual buprenorphine in a two-session study with a stressful speaking task (Trier Social Stress Test; TSST) and a non-stressful control task. During the sessions, the participants reported on their mood states, provided subjective appraisals of the task, and measures of salivary cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure at regular intervals. Stress produced its expected effects, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, salivary cortisol, and subjective ratings of anxiety and negative mood. In line with our hypothesis, both doses of buprenorphine significantly dampened salivary cortisol responses to stress. On self-report ratings, buprenorphine reduced how threatening participants found the tasks. These results suggest that enhanced opioid signaling dampens responses to social stress in humans, as it does in laboratory animals. This stress-dampening effect of buprenorphine may contribute to the non-medical use of opioid drugs.