Differential response to IV carfentanil in chronic cocaine users and healthy controls

Carolynne P. Minkowski, David Epstein, J. James Frost, David A. Gorelick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Chronic cocaine exposure in both rodents and humans increases regional brain mu-opioid receptor (mOR) binding potential, suggesting that cocaine users might have an altered response to mOR agonists. We evaluated the response to IV carfentanil (a selective mOR agonist) in 23 cocaine users [mean (standard deviation) age 33.8 (4.0) years, 83% men] who underwent positron emission tomography (PET) scanning with [C-11]-carfentanil [44.7 (19.5) ng/kg] while housed on a closed research ward and 15 healthy non-drug-using controls [43.9 (14.2) years, 80% men] scanned [49.5 (12.6) ng/kg] as outpatients. Cocaine users had used for 8.7 (4.3) years and on 73 (22)% of days in the two weeks prior to PET scanning. Common adverse effects associated with mOR agonists (nausea, dizziness, headache, vomiting, itchiness) were assessed by self-report (five-point Likert scales) during and for 90 minutes after the scans. Cocaine users were significantly less likely than controls to report any symptom (30.4% versus 60%) and had fewer total symptoms [0.43 (0.73) versus 1.1 (1.0)] during scans, even after statistically controlling for age and carfentanil dose. These differences were also present after the scans and at repeat scans performed after about one week or 12 weeks of monitored cocaine abstinence. In a larger group of cocaine users and separate controls, there was no significant group difference in carfentanil half-life, suggesting that the observed difference was pharmacodynamically, rather than pharmacokinetically, based. These findings suggest that cocaine users are less responsive than healthy controls to mOR agonist adverse effects despite having increased regional brain mOR binding potential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)149-155
Number of pages7
JournalAddiction Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Agonist
  • carfentanil
  • cocaine
  • mu-opioid receptor
  • PET scan
  • receptor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology


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