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Keywords:

  • differentiation;
  • immune system;
  • melanocytes;
  • opioids;
  • pruritus;
  • skin

Abstract:  The common ectodermal origin of the skin and nervous systems can be expected to predict likely interactions in the adult. Over the last couple of decades much progress has been made to elucidate the nature of these interactions, which provide multidirectional controls between the centrally located brain and the peripherally located skin and immune system. The opioid system is an excellent example of such an interaction and there is growing evidence that opioid receptors (OR) and their endogenous opioid agonists are functional in different skin structures, including peripheral nerve fibres, keratinocytes, melanocytes, hair follicles and immune cells. Greater knowledge of these skin-associated opioid interactions will be important for the treatment of chronic and acute pain and pruritus. Topical treatment of the skin with opioid ligands is particularly attractive as they are active with few side effects, especially if they cannot cross the blood–brain barrier. Moreover, cutaneous activation of the opioid system (e.g. by peripheral nerves, cutaneous and immune cells, especially in inflamed and damaged skin) can influence cell differentiation and apoptosis, and thus may be important for the repair of damaged skin. While many of the pieces of this intriguing puzzle remain to be found, we attempt in this review to weave a thread around available data to discuss how the peripheral opioid system may impact on different key players in skin physiology and pathology.