• Indexing terms: intracardiac ganglia;
  • opioid receptors;
  • parasympathetic;
  • sympathetic;
  • sensory nerves


Recent interest has been focused on the opioid regulation of heart performance; however, specific allocation of opioid receptors to the parasympathetic, sympathetic, and sensory innervations of the heart is scarce. Therefore, the present study aimed to characterize such specific target sites for opioids in intracardiac ganglia, which act as a complex network for the integration of the heart's neuronal in- and output. Tissue samples from rat heart atria were subjected to RT-PCR, Western blot, radioligand-binding, and double immunofluorescence confocal analysis of μ (M)- and κ (K)-opioid receptors (ORs) with the neuronal markers vesicular acetylcholine transporter (VAChT), tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), and substance P (SP). Our results demonstrated MOR- and KOR-specific mRNA, receptor protein, and selective membrane ligand binding. By using immunofluorescence confocal microscopy, MOR and KOR immunoreactivity were colocalized with VAChT in large-diameter parasympathetic principal neurons, with TH-immunoreactive small intensely fluorescent (SIF) cells, and on nearby TH-IR varicose terminals. In addition, MOR and KOR immunoreactivity were identified on CGRP- and SP-IR sensory neurons throughout intracardiac ganglia and atrial myocardium. Our findings show that MOR and KOR are expressed as mRNA and translated into specific receptor proteins on cardiac parasympathetic, sympathetic, and sensory neurons as potential binding sites for opioids. Thus, they may well play a role within the complex network for the integration of the heart's neuronal in- and output. J. Comp. Neurol. 518:3836–3847, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.