The use of opioid analgesics has a long history in clinical settings, although the comprehensive action of opioid receptors is still less understood. Nonetheless, recent studies have generated fresh insights into opioid receptor-mediated functions and their underlying mechanisms. Three major opioid receptors (μ-opioid receptor, MOR; δ-opioid receptor, DOR; and κ-opioid receptor, KOR) have been cloned in many species. Each opioid receptor is functionally sub-classified into several pharmacological subtypes, although, specific gene corresponding each of these receptor subtypes is still unidentified as only a single gene has been isolated for each opioid receptor.
In addition to pain modulation and addiction, opioid receptors are widely involved in various physiological and pathophysiological activities, including the regulation of membrane ionic homeostasis, cell proliferation, emotional response, epileptic seizures, immune function, feeding, obesity, respiratory and cardiovascular control as well as some neurodegenerative disorders. In some species, they play an essential role in hibernation. One of the most exciting findings of the past decade is the opioid-receptor, especially DOR, mediated neuroprotection and cardioprotection. The upregulation of DOR expression and DOR activation increase the neuronal tolerance to hypoxic/ischemic stress. The DOR signal triggers (depending on stress duration and severity) different mechanisms at multiple levels to preserve neuronal survival, including the stabilization of homeostasis and increased pro-survival signaling (e.g., PKC-ERK-Bcl 2) and antioxidative capacity. In the heart, PKC and KATP channels are involved in the opioid receptor-mediated cardioprotection. The DOR-mediated neuroprotection and cardioprotection have the potential to significantly alter the clinical pharmacology in terms of prevention and treatment of life-threatening conditions like stroke and myocardial infarction.
The main purpose of this article is to review the recent work done on opioids and their receptor functions. It shall provide an informative reference for better understanding the opioid system and further elucidation of the opioid receptor function from a physiological and pharmacological point of view.