Positron Emission Tomography Imaging of Mu- and Delta-Opioid Receptor Binding in Alcohol-Dependent and Healthy Control Subjects

Elise M. Weerts, Gary S. Wand, Hiroto Kuwabara, Cynthia A. Munro, Robert F. Dannals, John Hilton, J. James Frost, Mary E. Mccaul

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Background: The endogenous opioid system plays a significant role in alcohol dependence. The goal of the current study was to investigate regional brain mu-opioid receptor (MOR) and delta-opioid receptor (DOR) availability in recently abstinent alcohol-dependent and age-matched healthy control men and women with positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. Methods: Alcohol-dependent subjects completed an inpatient protocol, which included medically supervised withdrawal and PET imaging on day 5 of abstinence. Control subjects completed PET imaging following an overnight stay. PET scans with the MOR-selective ligand [ 11C]carfentanil (CFN) were completed in 25 alcohol-dependent and 30 control subjects. Most of these same subjects (20 alcohol-dependent subjects and 18 controls) also completed PET scans with the DOR-selective ligand [ 11C]methylnaltrindole (MeNTL). Results: Volumes of interest and statistical parametric mapping analyses indicated that alcohol-dependent subjects had significantly higher [ 11C]CFN binding potential (BP ND) than healthy controls in multiple brain regions including the ventral striatum when adjusting for age, gender, and smoking status. There was an inverse relationship between [ 11C]CFN BP ND and craving in several brain regions in alcohol-dependent subjects. Groups did not differ in [ 11C]MeNTL BP ND; however, [ 11C]MeNTL BP ND in caudate was positively correlated with recent alcohol drinking in alcohol-dependent subjects. Conclusions: Our observation of higher [ 11C]CFN BP ND in alcohol-dependent subjects can result from up-regulation of MOR and/or reduction in endogenous opioid peptides following long-term alcohol consumption, dependence, and/or withdrawal. Alternatively, the higher [ 11C]CFN BP ND in alcohol-dependent subjects may be an etiological difference that predisposed these individuals to alcohol dependence or may have developed as a result of increased exposure to childhood adversity, stress, and other environmental factors known to increase MOR. Although the direction of group differences in [ 11C]MeNTL BP ND was similar in many brain regions, differences did not achieve statistical significance, perhaps as a result of our limited sample size. Additional research is needed to further clarify these relationships. The finding that alcohol-dependent subjects had higher [ 11C]CFN BP ND is consistent with a prominent role of the MOR in alcohol dependence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2162-2173
Number of pages12
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2011


  • Abstinence
  • Alcoholism
  • Brain Imaging
  • Carfentanil
  • Naltrindole

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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