Early life stress and risks for opioid misuse: Review of data supporting neurobiological underpinnings

Lynn M. Oswald, Kelly E. Dunn, David A. Seminowicz, Carla L. Storr

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


A robust body of research has shown that traumatic experiences occurring during critical developmental periods of childhood when neuronal plasticity is high increase risks for a spectrum of physical and mental health problems in adulthood, including substance use disorders. However, until recently, relatively few studies had specifically examined the relationships between early life stress (ELS) and opioid use disorder (OUD). Associations with opioid use initiation, injection drug use, overdose, and poor treatment outcome have now been demonstrated. In rodents, ELS has also been shown to increase the euphoric and decrease antinociceptive effects of opioids, but little is known about these processes in humans or about the neurobiological mechanisms that may underlie these relationships. This review aims to establish a theoretical model that highlights the mechanisms by which ELS may alter opioid sensitivity, thereby contributing to future risks for OUD. Alterations induced by ELS in mesocorticolimbic brain circuits, and endogenous opioid and dopamine neurotransmitter systems are described. The limited but provocative evidence linking these alterations with opioid sensitivity and risks for OUD is presented. Overall, the findings suggest that better understanding of these mechanisms holds promise for reducing vulnerability, improving prevention strategies, and prescribing guidelines for high-risk individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number315
JournalJournal of Personalized Medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021


  • Dopamine
  • Early life stress
  • Emotion processing
  • Endogenous opioid
  • Mesocorticolimbic
  • Opioid sensitivity
  • Opioid use disorder
  • Reward processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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