The δ1 opioid receptor is a heterodimer that opposes the actions of the δ2 receptor on alcohol intake

Richard M. Van Rijn, Jennifer Whistler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Background: Opioid receptors are clinically important targets for both pain and alcohol abuse. Three opioid receptors have been cloned: μ, δ, and κ, all of which effect alcohol consumption in animal models. Naltrexone is a nonselective opioid antagonist used for alcoholism, the clinical utility of which is limited by poor efficacy and adverse side effects. Here, we demonstrate that the therapeutic limitations of naltrexone may reflect its poor selectivity. Despite decades of research, several mysteries surround the pharmacology of these receptors. For example, two pharmacologically defined subtypes of δ receptors exist in vivo. Methods: Effects of δ subtype-selective ligands (naltrindole, naltriben, tan-67, 7-benzylidene naltrexone) were measured on ethanol consumption in C57BL/6 wildtype and opioid receptor knockout mice using a limited access two-bottle choice paradigm. Affinity and efficacy of naltriben, 7-benzylidenenaltrexone and tan-67 was measured in vitro using radioligand binding and Ca2+-mobilizationa assays. Results: We show that the subtypes of the δ receptor, δ1 and δ2, have opposing effects on ethanol consumption. We find that these effects are synergistic; thereby suggesting that δ1 and δ2 receptors are distinct molecular targets. Indeed, we provide both in vitro as well as in vivo evidence that the δ1 subtype is a μ- δ heterodimer and that the δ2 subtype is most likely a δ homomer. Conclusions: Together these data provide insight into the limited actions of the clinically important drug naltrexone and identify a novel target with improved specificity and efficacy for the development of new therapeutics for the treatment of alcoholism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-784
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Oct 15 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Alcoholism
  • Delta opioid receptor
  • Ethanol
  • G-protein coupled receptor
  • Heterodimerization
  • Subtypes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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