Synthetic Opioids Found to Interact with Brain Cells Differently than the Body’s Natural Opioids

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Published: 05/11/2018 | Author:

Synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids including fentanyl, oxycodone, and morphine have been long known to interact with brain cells in ways similar to natural endogenous opioids like endorphins. But new research from UC San Francisco suggests that synthetic opioids target brain cells differently, which is why these substances tend to be highly addictive. The researchers say their findings may help explain why synthetic opioids like fentanyl produce more rewarding effects than naturally occurring opioids like endorphins.

How Do Synthetic Opioids Target the Brain Differently?

synthetic opioids

In the new study published in the latest issue of Neuron, scientists set out to learn more about how synthetic and natural opioids each interact with and bind to opioid receptors. Previously, it was thought that all opioids activate opioid receptors on the surface of nerve cells, but new research indicates that synthetic opioids also activate receptors inside the cells to produce more powerful, intense effects.

Morphine and synthetic opioids activate receptors in another brain region called the Golgi apparatus, where endogenous opioids are unable to activate any receptors. Synthetic opioids travel directly to the Golgi apparatus, and can bind to receptors quickly within 20 seconds. Endogenous opioids can only bind to the surface of cells and endosomes — compartments inside opioid receptors — and produce effects within one minute.

The study authors say this time difference could play an important role in the onset of addiction, since drugs that produce effects more quickly tend to have a higher addictive potential. Lead study author Mark von Zastrow, MD, Ph.D. says synthetic opioids are known to produce more extreme, rewarding effects than natural opioids, which is partly why these drugs tend to be more addictive. Zastrow and team hope their findings can be applied to new opioid-based pain medications that carry a lowered risk for addiction.

What are the Dangers of Synthetic Opioid Medications?

Many synthetic opioids are used in medicine to treat moderate to severe pain, but these drugs are also extremely addictive and can lead to dependence. Synthetic opioid medications are intended for short-term use in treating pain, but long-term use can lead to permanent changes in brain structure and chemistry that cause addiction, as well as behavioral problems and mental health disorders. Long-term use of synthetic opioids can even cause side effects including increased sensitivity to pain, lowered immunity, and insomnia.

In 2016, synthetic opioids like fentanyl were linked to 31% of all drug overdose deaths, and caused more overdose deaths in the U.S. than any other substance. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, and can quickly trigger an overdose when too much is ingested. Many times, first responders are unable to reverse a fentanyl overdose using overdose reversal drug naloxone on behalf of the potency and mechanism of this powerful opioid.

How to Safely Overcome Opioid Dependence

Opioid addiction now plagues over 2.1 million Americans in the U.S., and remains an ongoing crisis and public health emergency. If you or a loved one has become dependent on opioids, understand you’re not alone, and that help is available and nearby in the form of professional detox treatment.

A medical drug detox for opioids helps you withdraw from opioids using medications that relieve drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms. With a medical detox, you spend between seven and 10 days withdrawing from opioids at an inpatient care center where medical staff monitor your progress and intervene when needed to make your recovery more comfortable. Recovering from opioid dependence at a drug detox center can help you stay safe and reduces the risk for complications like dehydration, seizures, relapse, and overdose.

Ready to begin your recovery journey? Call 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) to learn about available treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction.

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