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Scientists solve 40-year mystery of how sodium controls opioid brain signaling

LA JOLLA, CAJanuary 12, 2014Scientists have discovered how the element sodium influences the signaling of a major class of brain cell receptors, known as opioid receptors. The discovery, from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the University of North Carolina (UNC), suggests new therapeutic approaches to a host of brain-related medical conditions.

"It opens the door to understanding opioid related drugs for treating pain and mood disorders, among others," said lead author Dr. Gustavo Fenalti, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Raymond C. Stevens of TSRI's Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology.

"This discovery has helped us decipher a 40-year-old mystery about sodium's control of opioid receptors," said Stevens, who was senior author of the paper with UNC pharmacologist Professor Bryan Roth. "It is amazing how sodium sits right in the middle of the receptor as a co-factor or allosteric modulator."

The findings appear in an advanced online publication in the journal Nature on January 12, 2014.

A Sharper Image

The researchers revealed the basis for sodium's effect on signaling with a high-resolution 3-D view of an opioid receptor's atomic structure. Opioid receptors are activated by peptide neurotransmitters (endorphins, dynorphins and enkephalins) in the brain. They can also be activated by plant-derived and synthetic drugs that mimic these peptides: among them morphine, codeine, oxycodone and heroin.

Despite these receptors' crucial importance in health and disease, including pain disorders and addictions, scientists have only begun to understand in detail how they work. Opioid receptors are inherently flimsy and fragile when produced in isolation, and thus have been hard to study using X-ray crystallography, the usual structure-mapping method for large proteins.

In recent years, the Stevens laboratory has helped pioneer the structur

Contact: Mika Ono
Scripps Research Institute

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