BACKGROUND: There is evidence from animal studies that serotonin (5-HT) can influence the antinociceptive effects of opioids at the spinal cord level. Therefore, there could be an influence of genetic polymorphisms in the serotonin system on individual variability in response to opioid treatment of pain. The serotonin transporter (5-HTT) is a key regulator of serotonin metabolism and availability and its gene harbors several known polymorphisms that are known to affect 5-HTT expression (e.g. 5-HTTLPR, rs25531). The aim of this study was to investigate if the triallelic 5-HTTLPR influences pain sensitivity or the analgesic effect of opioids in humans. 43 healthy volunteers (12 men, 31 women, mean age 26 years) underwent heat pain stimulations before and after intravenous injection of Remifentanil; a rapid and potent opioid drug acting on micro-type receptors. Subjects rated their perceived pain on a visual analogue scale (VAS). All participants were genotyped for the 5-HTTLPR and the rs25531 polymorphism. We recruited by advertising, with no history of drug abuse, chronic pain or psychiatric disorders. RESULTS: At baseline, there was no difference in pain ratings for the different triallelic 5-HTTLPR genotype groups. However, the opiod drug had a differential analgesic effect depending on the triallelic 5-HTTLPR genotype. Remifentanil had a significantly better analgesic effect in individuals with a genotype coding for low 5-HTT expression (SA/SA and SA/LG) as compared to those with high expression(LA/LA), p < 0.02. The analgesic effect for the three different genotype groups was linear to degree of 5-HTT expression. CONCLUSION: This is the first report showing an influence of the triallelic 5-HTTLPR on pain sensitivity or the analgesic effect of opioids in humans. Previously the 5-HTTLPR s-allele has been associated with higher risk of developing chronic pain conditions but in this study we show that the genotype coding for low 5-HTT expression is associated with a better analgesic effect of an opioid. The s-allele has been associated with downregulation of 5-HT1 receptors and we suggest that individuals with a desensitization of 5-HT1 receptors have an increased analgesic response to opioids during acute pain stimuli, but may still be at increased risk of developing chronic pain conditions.
Kosek, E., Jensen, K. B., Lonsdorf, T. B., Schalling, M., & Ingvar, M. (2009). Genetic variation in the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR, rs25531) influences the analgesic response to the short acting opioid Remifentanil in humans. Molecular Pain, 5. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckr210