Acute Opioid Receptor Desensitization And Tolerance: Is There A Link?


  • Co-winner of the Sir Grafton Elliot Smith Award at the Year 2000 Australian Neuroscience Society Meeting.

Stephanie L Borgland, Department of Pharmacology D06, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2005, Australia. Email:


1. Morphine, used long-term for the treatment of pain, results in drug tolerance. The therapeutic benefits, as well as side effects, of morphine are mediated predominantly via activation of μ-opioid receptors. Although the underlying mechanisms for opioid tolerance remains unclear, early adaptive processes, such as acute receptor desensitization and receptor downregulation, have been suggested to be crucial to the development of opioid tolerance.

2. Other neuroadaptations resulting from chronic opioid use include upregulation of the cAMP pathway, an increase in the cAMP response element-binding protein and Fos-related antigens. However, the connection between upregulation of these cellular elements and the mechanism behind the behavioural phenomenon remains unclear.

3. Acute receptor desensitization is thought to occur via uncoupling of the receptor and G-protein, which is followed by internalization of the receptor from the cell membrane. This process occurs after a few minutes of agonist exposure. Receptor–G-protein uncoupling is mediated via phosphorylation of putative sites on the intracellular loops of activated receptors.

4. Acute desensitization and downregulation of receptors both result in a reduction of agonist efficacy. These events occur early in the cascade of cellular adaptation; however, it is uncertain whether these processes contribute to the long-term changes in receptor sensitivity that occur after repeated exposure to opioids.

5. Acute desensitization may, in fact, be a protective mechanism whereby cells adapt to avoid the development of physiological drug tolerance by rapidly attenuating receptor-mediated signalling. Those drugs that do not cause receptor internalization, such as morphine, may have higher propensities to develop tolerance.