Mu-opioid receptor activation underpins clinical analgesia and is the central event in the abuse of narcotics. Continued opioid use produces tolerance to the acute effects of the drug and adaptations that lead to physical and psychological dependence. Continued mu-receptor signaling provides the engine for these adaptations, with most evidence suggesting that chronic agonist treatment produces only limited alterations in primary mu-opioid receptor signaling. Here we examine agonist regulation of mu-opioid receptor function, and whether this is altered by chronic treatment. Receptor phosphorylation is thought to be the key initial event in agonist regulation of the mu-opioid receptor, providing a signal for acute receptor desensitization and also subsequent receptor resensitization. Morphine appears to produce qualitatively and quantitatively different mu-receptor phosphorylation than other agonists, but the consequences of this remain obscure, at least in neurons. There is no evidence that agonist-induced mu-opioid receptor phosphorylation changes in chronically morphine-treated animals, although receptor regulation appears to be altered. Thus, as receptor phosphorylation and resensitization appear to maintain continued signaling through the mu-opioid receptor, these two events are crucial in facilitating adaptations to chronic opioid treatment, and the possibility that agonist-specific phosphorylation can contribute to the development of different adaptations remains open.
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