Five Decades of Research on Opioid Peptides: Current Knowledge and Unanswered Questions

Lloyd D. Fricker, Elyssa B. Margolis, Ivone Gomes, Lakshmi A. Devi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

1 Scopus citations


In the mid-1970s, an intense race to identify endogenous substances that activated the same receptors as opiates resulted in the identification of the first endogenous opioid peptides. Since then, >20 peptides with opioid receptor activity have been discovered, all of which are generated from three precursors, proenkephalin, prodynorphin, and proopiomelanocortin, by sequential proteolytic processing by prohormone convertases and carboxypeptidase E. Each of these peptides binds to all three of the opioid receptor types (μ, δ, or κ), albeit with differing affinities. Peptides derived from proenkephalin and prodynorphin are broadly distributed in the brain, and mRNA encoding all three precursors are highly expressed in some peripheral tissues. Various approaches have been used to explore the functions of the opioid peptides in specific behaviors and brain circuits. These methods include directly administering the peptides ex vivo (i.e., to excised tissue) or in vivo (in animals), using antagonists of opioid receptors to infer endogenous peptide activity, and genetic knockout of opioid peptide precursors. Collectively, these studies add to our current understanding of the function of endogenous opioids, especially when similar results are found using different approaches. We briefly review the history of identification of opioid peptides, highlight the major findings, address several myths that are widely accepted but not supported by recent data, and discuss unanswered questions and future directions for research. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Activation of the opioid receptors by opiates and synthetic drugs leads to central and peripheral biological effects, including analgesia and respiratory depression, but these may not be the primary functions of the endogenous opioid peptides. Instead, the opioid peptides play complex and overlapping roles in a variety of systems, including reward pathways, and an important direction for research is the delineation of the role of individual peptides.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)96-108
Number of pages13
JournalMolecular Pharmacology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmacology

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