AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 3, 2019

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The “Inflammation” of Opioid Use

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Opioid dependence has become a national crisis with serious impact on economic and social welfare, and numerous casualties. A big goal of ongoing research in combating opioid use disorder is understanding drug withdrawal. The physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal can be life threatening and make up a powerfully negative experience; the fear of these symptoms strongly motivates addiction.

Researchers in the lab of James Schwaber at the Daniel Baugh Institute for Functional Genomics and Computational Biology at Thomas Jefferson University are studying how inflammation contributes to drug withdrawal and dependence.

Opioids can cause inflammation in the brain by inducing immune cells to release inflammatory molecules called cytokines. The main immune cells in the brain are microglia and astrocytes. Inflammatory responses induced by opioids have been observed in the central amygdala, a brain region that has been strongly implicated in opioid dependence because of its role in emotion and motivation. The central amygdala can also be affected by inflammation in other parts of the body, like the gut. In fact, the communication between the gut and the brain can shape a variety of motivated behaviors and emotional states, including those associated with drug dependence and withdrawal.

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