Environmental cues associated with heroin use may decrease immune function

April 09, 2003

Scientists have long known that some drugs, such as heroin and morphine, can cause changes in the immune systems of drug abusers that make them more susceptible to infection. However, Dr. Donald Lysle and Stephanie Ijames from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have now found that in rats, the environmental cues associated with drug use also may induce alterations in immunity. Their study is the first to demonstrate that cues associated with heroin use cause a reduction in the enzyme, inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), which affects nitric oxide production by cells of the immune system. Nitric oxide plays a key role in the ability of immune cells to fight and kill microorganisms and tumor cells.

The researchers conditioned male rats to associate heroin administration with placement in a new environment by administering the drug to the rats as soon as they were placed in that environment. On the test day, the rats were re-exposed to the environment in the absence of heroin and then given an injection of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which induces iNOS production by immune cells. Six hours later, the rats' spleens, lungs, and livers were analyzed for the expression of iNOS messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) and iNOS protein. Control groups were used to determine if any step in the conditioning process, such as the injection procedure, re-exposure to the conditioning environment, or a combination of injection of heroin and exposure to the environment, contributed to alterations in iNOS production. The researchers also used an unmanipulated control group to provide a general comparison for all the control groups, as well as the experimental group.

The researchers found that exposure to the environmental cues associated with heroin administration resulted in a dramatic reduction in the expression of iNOS mRNA and iNOS protein in the conditioned rats' spleen, lung, and liver tissues.

WHAT IT MEANS: These findings suggest that environmental cues associated with drug use may contribute to alterations in susceptibility to infection.
This study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was published in the December 2002 issue of Psychopharmacology.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports more than 85 percent of the world's research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to ensure the rapid dissemination of research information and its implementation in policy and practice. Fact sheets on the health effects of drugs of abuse and other topics are available in English and Spanish. These fact sheets and further information on NIDA research and other activities can be found on the NIDA home page at http://www.drugabuse.gov.

NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse

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