Endomorphin-Like Immunoreactivity in the Rat Dorsal Horn and Inhibition of Substantia Gelatinosa Neurons in Vitro

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Endomorphin 1 and 2 are two tetrapeptides recently isolated from bovine as well as human brains and proposed to be the endogenous ligand for the μ- opiate receptor Opioid compounds expressing μ-receptor preference are generally potent analgesics. The spinal cord dorsal horn is considered to be an important site for the processing of sensory information including pain. The discovery that endomorphins produced greater analgesia in mice upon intrathecal as compared to intracerebroventricular injections raises the possibility that dorsal horn neurons may represent the anatomic site upon which endomorphins exert their analgesic effects. We report here the detection of endomorphin 2-immunoreactive fiber-like elements in superficial layers of the rat dorsal horn by immunohistochemical techniques. Whole-cell patch recordings from substantia gelatinosa neurons of cervical spinal cord slices revealed two conspicuous effects of exogenously applied endomorphin 1 and 2: (i) depression of excitatory postsynaptic potentials evoked by stimulation of dorsal root entry zone, and (ii) hyperpolarization of substantia gelatinosa neurons. These effects were reversed by the selective μ-opiate receptor antagonist β-funaltrexamine. Collectively, the detection of endomorphin-like immunoreactivity in nerve fibers of the superficial layers and the inhibitory action of endomorphins on substantia gelatinosa neurons provide further support for a potential role of these two peptides in spinal nociception.