Estrogens synthesized and acting within a spinal oligomer suppress spinal endomorphin 2 antinociception: ebb and flow over the rat reproductive cycle

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The magnitude of antinociception elicited by intrathecal endomorphin 2 (EM2), an endogenous mu-opioid receptor (MOR) ligand, varies across the rat estrous cycle. We now report that phasic changes in analgesic responsiveness to spinal EM2 result from plastic interactions within a novel membrane-bound oligomer containing estrogen receptors (mERs), aromatase (aka estrogen synthase), metabotropic glutamate receptor 1 (mGluR1), and MOR. During diestrus, spinal mERs, activated by locally synthesized estrogens, act with mGluR1 to suppress spinal EM2/MOR antinociception. The emergence of robust spinal EM2 antinociception during proestrus results from the loss of mER-mGluR1 suppression, a consequence of altered interactions within the oligomer. The chemical pairing of aromatase with mERs within the oligomer containing MOR and mGluR1 allows estrogens to function as intracellular messengers whose synthesis and actions are confined to the same signaling oligomer. This form of estrogenic signaling, which we term “oligocrine,” enables discrete, highly compartmentalized estrogen/mER-mGluR1 signaling to regulate MOR-mediated antinociception induced by EM2. Finally, spinal neurons were observed not only to coexpress MOR, mERα, aromatase, and mGluR1 but also be apposed by EM2 varicosities. This suggests that modulation of spinal analgesic responsiveness to exogenous EM2 likely reflects changes in its endogenous analgesic activity. Analogous suppression of spinal EM2 antinociception in women (eg, around menses, comparable with diestrus in rats) as well as the (pathological) inability to transition out of that suppressed state at other menstrual cycle stages could underlie, at least in part, the much greater prevalence and severity of chronic pain in women than men.

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