, Volume 180, Issue 1, pp 1-11
Date: 14 Apr 2005

Effector antagonism by the regulators of G protein signalling (RGS) proteins causes desensitization of mu-opioid receptors in the CNS

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In cell culture systems, agonists can promote the phosphorylation and internalization of receptors coupled to G proteins (GPCR), leading to their desensitization. However, in the CNS opioid agonists promote a profound desensitization of their analgesic effects without diminishing the presence of their receptors in the neuronal membrane. Recent studies have indicated that CNS proteins of the RGS family, specific regulators of G protein signalling, may be involved in mu-opioid receptor desensitization in vivo.


In this work we review the role played by RGS proteins in the intensity and duration of the effects of mu-opioid receptor agonists, and how they influence the delayed tolerance that develops in response to specific doses of opioids.


RGS proteins are GTPase-activating proteins (GAP) that accelerate the hydrolysis of GαGTP to terminate signalling at effectors. The GAP activity of RGS-R4 and RGS-Rz proteins restricts the amplitude of opioid analgesia, and the efficient deactivation of GαzGTP subunits by RGS-Rz proteins prevents mu receptor desensitization. However, RGS-R7 proteins antagonize effectors by binding to and sequestering mu receptor-activated Gαi/o/z subunits. Thus, they reduce the pool of receptor-regulated G proteins and hence, the effects of agonists. The delayed tolerance observed following morphine administration correlates with the transfer of Gα subunits from mu receptors to RGS-R7 proteins and the subsequent stabilization of this association.


In the CNS, the RGS proteins control the activity of mu opioid receptors through GAP-dependent (RGS-R4 and RGS-Rz) as well as by GAP-independent mechanisms (RGS-R7). As a result, they can both antagonize effectors and desensitize receptors under certain circumstances.