Depression of home cage wheel running is an objective measure of spontaneous morphine withdrawal in rats with and without persistent pain

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Opioid withdrawal in humans is often subtle and almost always spontaneous. In contrast, most preclinical studies precipitate withdrawal by administration of an opioid receptor antagonist such as naloxone. These animal studies rely on measurement of physiological symptoms (e.g., wet dog shakes) in the period immediately following naloxone administration. To more closely model the human condition, we tested the hypothesis that depression of home cage wheel running will provide an objective method to measure the magnitude and duration of spontaneous morphine withdrawal. Rats were allowed access to a running wheel in their home cage for 8 days prior to implantation of two 75 mg morphine or placebo pellets. The pellets were removed 3 or 5 days later to induce spontaneous withdrawal. In normal pain-free rats, removal of the morphine pellets depressed wheel running for 48 h compared to rats that had placebo pellets removed. Morphine withdrawal-induced depression of wheel running was greatly enhanced in rats with persistent inflammatory pain induced by injection of Complete Freund's Adjuvant (CFA) into the hindpaw. Removal of the morphine pellets following 3 days of treatment depressed wheel running in these rats for over 6 days. These data demonstrate that home cage wheel running provides an objective and more clinically relevant method to assess spontaneous morphine withdrawal compared to precipitated withdrawal in laboratory rats. Moreover, the enhanced withdrawal in rats with persistent inflammatory pain suggests that pain patients may be especially susceptible to opioid withdrawal.

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