The role of endogenous opioids in the control of gastrointestinal motility: predictions from in vitro modelling

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Gastrointestinal motility can be assessed in vitro by investigating the effects of drugs or gene knockouts on intestinal propulsion, and on neurone-mediated responses evoked by electrical field stimulation (EFS). The latter predominantly measure enteric motor activity and can detect prokinetic activity of exogenous agents. Some evidence suggests that naloxone has prokinetic activity when evaluated for an ability to modulate responses to EFS, but the effects are inconsistent across different species or intestinal regions. Models of intestinal peristalsis measure an integrated sensory-motor nerve function and possess more intact neuro-neuronal connections. In such preparations, the effects of naloxone also suggest a prokinetic property but again, this is inconsistent. By contrast, consistent prokinetic activity of naloxone is apparent in models where peristalsis is compromised by drug-induced suppression of motor nerve activity or by modulation of endogenous processes using receptor antagonists or inappropriate intraluminal distension. These data suggest that endogenous opioids play little or no role in normal intestinal physiology, but suppress intestinal motility when motor function is compromised. Consequently, drugs that antagonize opioid receptors may exert prokinetic activity in conditions where intestinal motility is reduced, such as constipation. Further work is required to elucidate the opiate receptor(s) involved.

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