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Opioid Receptors Play an Unexpected Role in Gut Development

— June 24, 2024

Researchers at Rice University uncover a surprising role that opioid receptors play in the gut.

Researchers at Rice University have made a surprising discovery that challenges our understanding of opioid receptors. Previously known for their role in pain management and addiction, a new study reveals they are essential for the development of the enteric nervous system (ENS), often referred to as the “brain in the gut.” This finding not only has significant implications for understanding digestive health and disease but also presents a paradigm shift in our understanding of opioid receptors, engaging the scientific community and healthcare professionals in a new frontier of research and potential treatments for congenital digestive disorders.

The study, spearheaded by Dr. Rosa Uribe, harnessed the power of zebrafish embryos as a model organism to delve into the genes pivotal for enteric nervous system development. Zebrafish, with their genetic similarities to humans, offer a unique lens into human development. The researchers employed the cutting-edge gene-editing technique CRISPR to selectively eliminate single genes, enabling them to meticulously observe the resulting impact on gut nerve formation.

This innovative approach revealed a surprising role for opioid receptors. When these receptors were deactivated, the migration and maturation of neurons along the gut were disrupted. This highlights the crucial role opioid signaling pathways play in establishing a healthy enteric nervous system.

Opioid Receptors Play an Unexpected Role in Gut Development
Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels

The ENS is a complex network of neurons located within the gastrointestinal tract. It is vital in regulating digestion, including gut motility and water balance. It also serves as a critical communication link between the gut and the brain, influencing mood, emotions, and overall well-being.

“Our research unveils a new aspect of opioid receptor function and highlights their unexpected role in gut development,” Dr. Uribe said. “This could have profound implications for understanding digestive disorders and potentially lead to new therapeutic approaches.”

The disruption of enteric nervous system development can lead to serious health problems. Infants born with missing gut nerves often experience difficulties passing stool, a condition known as Hirschsprung disease. This study’s findings not only offer hope for the development of new treatments for such congenital digestive disorders but also instill a sense of empathy and concern for the individuals and families affected by these conditions.

The research team also identified other genes, like VGF, that appear to be important for gastrointestinal health. Further investigation into these genes could provide even deeper insights into the intricate connection between genes, the nervous system, and digestive function.

“Our finding is incredible and opens up a whole new avenue of enteric neurodevelopmental biology research in the field,” lead researcher Dr. Rodrigo Moreno Campos said, adding, “The implications for congenital, neurological, and metabolic disease are great.”

This groundbreaking research not only deepens our understanding of opioid receptors but also holds promise for transformative advancements in the field of gut health. By deciphering the intricate interplay between genes and the nervous system, scientists may be on the cusp of developing innovative treatments for a spectrum of digestive disorders, potentially enhancing the quality of life for millions.


Opioid Receptors Key to Gut Nervous System Development

Opioid receptors play unexpected role in gut nervous system development

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