What do plasma beta-endorphin levels reveal about endogenous opioid analgesic function?

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Plasma levels of beta-endorphin (BE), an endogenous opioid analgesic, are often reported as they relate to acute and chronic pain outcomes. However, little is known about what resting plasma BE levels might reveal about functioning of the endogenous opioid antinociceptive system. This study directly examined associations between resting plasma BE and subsequent endogenous opioid analgesic responses to acute pain in 39 healthy controls and 37 individuals with chronic low back pain (LBP). Resting baseline levels of plasma BE were assessed. Next, participants received opioid blockade (8 mg naloxone i.v.) or placebo in a double-blind, randomized, crossover design. Participants then underwent two acute pain stimuli: finger pressure (FP) pain and ischaemic (ISC) forearm pain. Blockade effects (naloxone minus placebo pain ratings) were derived to index endogenous opioid analgesic function. In placebo condition analyses for both pain stimuli, higher resting BE levels were associated with subsequently greater reported pain intensity (p's < 0.05), with this effect occurring primarily in healthy controls (BE × Participant Type interactions, p's < 0.05). In blockade effect analyses across both pain tasks, higher resting plasma BE predicted less subsequent endogenous opioid analgesia (smaller blockade effects; p's < 0.05). For the ISC task, these links were significantly more prominent in LBP participants (BE × Participant Type Interactions, p's < 0.05). Results suggest that elevated resting plasma BE may be a potential biomarker for reduced endogenous opioid analgesic capacity, particularly among individuals with chronic pain. Potential clinical implications are discussed.

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