Earlier we introduced the concept of toll-like receptor (TLR)-mediated glial activation as central to all of the following: neuropathic pain, compromised acute opioid analgesia, and unwanted opioid side effects (tolerance, dependence, and reward). Attenuation of glial activation was demonstrated both to alleviate exaggerated pain states induced by experimental pain models and to reduce the development of opioid tolerance. We first prepared and characterized unnatural (+)-naloxone in 1978 as an opioid receptor inert research tool useful for detecting opioid receptor mediated effects when used in conjunction with (-)-naloxone, a high affinity clinical useful narcotic antagonist. We know now that (+)-naloxone and (+)-naltrexone, long thought to be inert compounds, are functional antagonists of TLR-4 receptors and that selective acute functional antagonism of TLR4 by (+)-naloxone results in reversal of neuropathic pain as well as potentiation of opioid analgesia. Opioid action has been thought to exert reinforcing effects solely via the initial agonism of opioid receptors. We now have evidence for an additional novel contributor to opioid reward: the innate immune pattern-recognition receptor, toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), and its MyD88-dependent signaling. Blockade of TLR4/MD2 by administration of the nonopioid, (+)-naloxone (rats), or two independent genetic knock-outs of MyD88-TLR4-dependent signaling (mice), suppressed opioid-induced conditioned place preference. (+)-Naloxone also reduced opioid (remifentanil) self-administration (rats), another commonly used behavioral measure of drug reward. Moreover, pharmacological blockade of morphine-TLR4/MD2 activity potently reduced morphine-induced elevations of extracellular dopamine in rat nucleus accumbens, a region critical for opioid reinforcement. Importantly, opioid-TLR4 actions are not a unidirectional influence on opioid pharmacodynamics, since TLR4(-/-) mice had reduced oxycodone-induced p38 and JNK phosphorylation, while displaying potentiated analgesia. Similar to our recent reports of morphine-TLR4/MD2 binding, here we provide a combination of in silico and biophysical data to support (+)-naloxone and remifentanil binding to TLR4/MD2. Collectively, these data indicate that the actions of opioids at classical opioid receptors, together with their newly identified TLR4/MD2 actions, affect the mesolimbic dopamine system that amplifies opioid-induced elevations in extracellular dopamine levels, therefore possibly explaining altered opioid reward behaviors. Thus, the discovery of TLR4/MD2 recognition of opioids as foreign xenobiotic substances adds to the existing hypothesized neuronal reinforcement mechanisms, identifies a new drug target in TLR4/MD2 for the treatment of addictions, and provides further evidence supporting a role for central proinflammatory immune signaling in drug reward. We previously showed that both the opioid antagonist (-)-naloxone and the non-opioid (+)-naloxone inhibit toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) signaling and reverse neuropathic pain expressed shortly after chronic constriction injury. We have now found that the TLR4 contributes to neuropathic pain in another major model (spinal nerve ligation) and to long established (2-4 months) neuropathic pain, not just to pain shortly after nerve damage. Analyses of plasma levels of (+)-naloxone after subcutaneous administration indicate that (+)-naloxone has comparable pharmacokinetics to (-)-naloxone with a relatively short half-life. This finding accounts for the rapid onset and short duration of allodynia reversal produced by subcutaneous (+)-naloxone. Since toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2) has also recently been implicated in neuropathic pain, cell lines transfected with either TLR4 or TLR2, necessary co-signaling molecules, and a reporter gene were used to define whether (+)-naloxone effects could be accounted for by actions at TLR2 in addition to TLR4. (+)-Naloxone inhibited signaling by TLR4 but not TLR2. These studies provide evidence for broad involvement of TLR4 in neuropathic pain, both early after nerve damage and months later. Additional, they provide further support for the TLR4 inhibitor (+)-naloxone as a novel candidate for the treatment of neuropathic pain. In summary, our studies demonstrated that (+)-naloxone, a systemically available, blood-brain barrier permeable, small molecule TLR4 inhibitor can reverse neuropathic pain in rats, even months after nerve injury. These findings suggest that (+)-naloxone, or similar compounds, be considered as a novel, first-in-class treatment for neuropathic pain.

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Wieseler, Julie; Ellis, Amanda; McFadden, Andrew et al. (2017) Supradural inflammatory soup in awake and freely moving rats induces facial allodynia that is blocked by putative immune modulators. Brain Res 1664:87-94
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