BDNF Is a Negative Modulator of Morphine Action

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Science  05 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6103, pp. 124-128
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222265

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Regulating Opioid Responses

Different drugs of abuse are thought to highjack similar reward systems in the brain using common mechanisms. However, Koo et al. (p. 124) now observe that some of the neural mechanisms that regulate opiate reward can be both different and even opposite to those that regulate reward by stimulant drugs. While knockdown of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the ventral tegmental area in mice antagonized the response to cocaine, the same manipulation strengthened the potential of opiates to increase dopamine neuron excitability. Optogenetic stimulation of dopaminergic terminals in the nucleus accumbens could counteract the effects of BDNF on morphine reward blockade.


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a key positive regulator of neural plasticity, promoting, for example, the actions of stimulant drugs of abuse such as cocaine. We discovered a surprising opposite role for BDNF in countering responses to chronic morphine exposure. The suppression of BDNF in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) enhanced the ability of morphine to increase dopamine (DA) neuron excitability and promote reward. In contrast, optical stimulation of VTA DA terminals in nucleus accumbens (NAc) completely reversed the suppressive effect of BDNF on morphine reward. Furthermore, we identified numerous genes in the NAc, a major target region of VTA DA neurons, whose regulation by BDNF in the context of chronic morphine exposure mediated this counteractive function. These findings provide insight into the molecular basis of morphine-induced neuroadaptations in the brain’s reward circuitry.

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