The opioid system consists of three receptors, mu, delta, and kappa, which are activated by endogenous opioid peptides processed from three protein precursors, proopiomelanocortin, proenkephalin, and prodynorphin. Opioid receptors are recruited in response to natural rewarding stimuli and drugs of abuse, and both endogenous opioids and their receptors are modified as addiction develops. Mechanisms whereby aberrant activation and modifications of the opioid system contribute to drug craving and relapse remain to be clarified. This review summarizes our present knowledge on brain sites where the endogenous opioid system controls hedonic responses and is modified in response to drugs of abuse in the rodent brain. We review 1) the latest data on the anatomy of the opioid system, 2) the consequences of local intracerebral pharmacological manipulation of the opioid system on reinforced behaviors, 3) the consequences of gene knockout on reinforced behaviors and drug dependence, and 4) the consequences of chronic exposure to drugs of abuse on expression levels of opioid system genes. Future studies will establish key molecular actors of the system and neural sites where opioid peptides and receptors contribute to the onset of addictive disorders. Combined with data from human and nonhuman primate (not reviewed here), research in this extremely active field has implications both for our understanding of the biology of addiction and for therapeutic interventions to treat the disorder.
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