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Nociceptin attenuates the escalation of oxycodone self-administration by normalizing CeA–GABA transmission in highly addicted rats


Approximately 25% of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and 5 to 10% develop an opioid use disorder. Although the neurobiological target of opioids is well known, the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for the development of addiction-like behaviors in some but not all individuals are poorly known. To address this issue, we used a unique outbred rat population (heterogeneous stock) that better models the behavioral and genetic diversity that is found in humans. We characterized individual differences in addiction-like behaviors using an addiction index that incorporates the key criteria of opioid use disorder: escalated intake, highly motivated responding, and hyperalgesia. Using in vitro electrophysiological recordings in the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA), we found that rats with high addiction-like behaviors (HA) exhibited a significant increase in γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) transmission compared with rats with low addiction-like behaviors (LA) and naive rats. The superfusion of CeA slices with nociceptin/orphanin FQ peptide (N/OFQ; 500 nM), an endogenous opioid-like peptide, normalized GABA transmission in HA rats. Intra-CeA levels of N/OFQ were lower in HA rats than in LA rats. Intra-CeA infusions of N/OFQ (1 μg per site) reversed the escalation of oxycodone self-administration in HA rats but not in LA rats. These results demonstrate that the downregulation of N/OFQ levels in the CeA may be responsible for hyper-GABAergic tone in the CeA that is observed in individuals who develop addiction-like behaviors. Based on these results, we hypothesize that small molecules that target the N/OFQ system might be useful for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

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