Neuroimaging of opioid exposure: a review of preclinical animal models to inform addiction research

Helen M. Kamens, Samuel Cramer, Rachel N. Hanley, Spencer Chase, Anna Wickenheisser, William J. Horton, Nanyin Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Opioid use results in thousands of overdose deaths each year. To address this crisis, we need a better understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms that drive opioid abuse. The noninvasive imaging tools positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and manganese-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MEMRI) can be used to identify how brain activity responds to acute opioid exposure and adapts to chronic drug treatment. These techniques can be performed in humans and animal models, and brain networks identified in animals closely map to the human brain. Animal models have the advantage of being able to systematically examine the independent effects of opioid exposure in a controlled environment accounting for the complex factors that drive opioid misuse in humans. This review synthesizes literature that utilized noninvasive neuroimaging tools (PET, fMRI, and MEMRI) measuring brain activity correlates in animals to understand the neurobiological consequences of exposure to abused opioids. A PubMed search in September 2023 identified 25 publications. These manuscripts were divided into 4 categories based on the route and duration of drug exposure (acute/chronic, active/passive administration). Within each category, the results were generally consistent across drug and imaging protocols. These papers cover a 20-year range and highlight the advancements in neuroimaging methodology during that time. These advances have enabled researchers to achieve greater resolution of brain regions altered by opioid exposure and to identify patterns of brain activation across regions (i.e., functional connectivity) and within subregions of structures. After describing the existing literature, we suggest areas where additional research is needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2459-2482
Number of pages24
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pharmacology

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