Endogenous opioid activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is required for relief of pain

Edita Navratilova, Jennifer Yanhua Xie, Diana Meske, Chaoling Qu, Kozo Morimura, Alec Okun, Naohisa Arakawa, Michael Ossipov, Howard L. Fields, Frank Porreca

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


Pain is aversive, and its relief elicits reward mediated by dopaminergic signaling in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), a part of the mesolimbic reward motivation pathway. How the reward pathway is engaged by pain-relieving treatments is not known. Endogenous opioid signaling in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area encoding pain aversiveness, contributes to pain modulation. We examined whether endogenous ACC opioid neurotransmission is required for relief of pain and subsequent downstream activation of NAc dopamine signaling. Conditioned place preference (CPP) and in vivo microdialysis were used to assess negative reinforcement and NAc dopaminergic transmission. In rats with postsurgical or neuropathic pain, blockade of opioid signaling in the rostral ACC (rACC) inhibited CPP and NAc dopamine release resulting from non-opioid pain-relieving treatments, including peripheral nerve block or spinal clonidine, an α2-adrenergic agonist. Conversely, pharmacological activation of rACC opioid receptors of injured, but not pain-free, animals was sufficient to stimulate dopamine release in the NAc and produce CPP. In neuropathic, but not sham-operated, rats, systemic doses of morphine that did not affect withdrawal thresholds elicited CPP and NAc dopamine release, effects that were prevented by blockade of ACC opioid receptors. The data provide a neural explanation for the preferential effects of opioids on pain affect and demonstrate that engagement of NAc dopaminergic transmission by non-opioid pain-relieving treatments depends on upstream ACC opioid circuits. Endogenous opioid signaling in the ACC appears to be both necessary and sufficient for relief of pain aversiveness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7264-7271
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 6 2015


  • Affective dimension of pain
  • Anterior cingulate cortex
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Postsurgical pain
  • Reward

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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