Drug addiction is a chronic brain disease that is a serious social problem and causes enormous financial burden. Because mitochondrial abnormalities have been associated with opiate addiction, we examined the effect of morphine on mtDNA levels in rat and mouse models of addiction and in cultured cells. We found that mtDNA copy number was significantly reduced in the hippocampus and peripheral blood of morphine-addicted rats and mice compared with control animals. Concordantly, decreased mtDNA copy number and elevated mtDNA damage were observed in the peripheral blood from opiate-addicted patients, indicating detrimental effects of drug abuse and stress. In cultured rat pheochromocytoma (PC12) cells and mouse neurons, morphine treatment caused many mitochondrial defects, including a reduction in mtDNA copy number that was mediated by autophagy. Knockdown of the Atg7 gene was able to counteract the loss of mtDNA copy number induced by morphine. The mitochondria-targeted antioxidant melatonin restored mtDNA content and neuronal outgrowth and prevented the increase in autophagy upon morphine treatment. In mice, coadministration of melatonin with morphine ameliorated morphine-induced behavioral sensitization, analgesic tolerance and mtDNA content reduction. During drug withdrawal in opiate-addicted patients and improvement of protracted abstinence syndrome, we observed an increase of serum melatonin level. Taken together, our study indicates that opioid addiction is associated with mtDNA copy number reduction and neurostructural remodeling. These effects appear to be mediated by autophagy and can be salvaged by melatonin.
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