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AlcoholScience, Policy and Public Health$

Peter Boyle, Paolo Boffetta, Albert B. Lowenfels, Harry Burns, Otis Brawley, Witold Zatonski, and Jürgen Rehm

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199655786

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199655786.001.0001

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Opioid pharmacogenetics of alcohol addiction

Opioid pharmacogenetics of alcohol addiction

(p.97) Chapter 11 Opioid pharmacogenetics of alcohol addiction

Wade Berrettini

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews clinical studies of naltrexone in alcoholism and pharmacogenetic studies of naltrexone clinical trials for alcohol addiction. There is growing interest in the association between μ-opioid receptors and addiction. Extensive data, across species, suggest that the 118G form of the μ-opioid receptor is characterized by decreased transcription and translation. Murine, primate, and human laboratory studies show that the 118G (or its species-specific homologue) variant permits alcohol to have a greater rewarding valence, leading to increased alcohol consumption. The human and rhesus data are equally convincing that naltrexone is able to blunt this greater rewarding signal.

Keywords:   opioids, alcohol reward, alcohol abuse, alcoholism, alcohol consumption, naltrexone, clinical studies

Introduction: the role of opioids in alcohol reward

There is growing interest in the relationship between mu opioid receptors and addiction to various substances. Ventral tegmental neurons release dopamine at nerve terminals in ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. Activation of this circuit is a common element of abused drugs, including alcohol (1, 2). Thus, alcohol shares in common with nicotine, cocaine, amphetamine, morphine, etc., this property of enhancing dopamergic transmission in ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. Both animal model and human studies are in agreement on this point (3, 4, 5). This release of dopamine in the ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex is partially enhanced by stimulation of mu opioid receptors (for which endorphin is the primary ligand) located on inhibitory gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic interneurons in the ventral tegmental area. The GABAergic interneurons inhibit the dopaminergic ventral tegmental neurons, whose activation signals reward. Thus, mu opioid receptor agonists enhance the likelihood of ventral tegmental dopaminergic neuron activation (and the experience of reward) by lessening the tonic inhibition of the associated GABAergic interneurons (6, 7, 8).

Given this circuitry, it has been consistently shown that endogenous opioids play a role in ethanol reinforcement in various animal paradigms. Endorphin elevations after alcohol consumption are seen in discrete reward regions of the hypothalamus (9), ventral tegmentum, and ventral striatum (10). It is important to note that endorphin-deficient rats continue to self-administer alcohol, indicating that endorphin is not the sole mechanism of alcohol reward (11). The importance of mu opioid receptor activation as a mechanism for alcohol reward is underscored by the fact that alcohol consumption in alcohol-preferring rats is persistently reduced after inactivating mu opioid receptors in the ventral striatum (12). Similarly, decreased alcohol self-administration is observed in primates after pre-treatment with opioid antagonists (13). C57Bl/6J mice, an inbred strain which prefers alcohol, has increased endorphin release in the hypothalamus after alcohol administration (14). Alcohol-preferring rats have high levels of opioid gene messenger RNA (mRNA) species in the hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex, and mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus (15), as well as increased mu opioid receptor density in the ventral striatum and medial prefrontal cortex.

Clinical studies of naltrexone in alcoholism

The development of a substantial body of evidence, in the 1980s, that naltrexone (an orally-active mu opioid receptor antagonist) diminished alcohol self-administration in animal models (13, 16, 17, 18, 19) led to the first use of naltrexone in alcohol-addicted populations in a controlled clinical trial (19), the promising outcome of which was immediately confirmed in a second controlled (p.98) clinical trial (20). Naltrexone was found to reduce alcohol craving and relapse to heavy drinking (operationally defined as five or more drinks/day for a man, four or more for a woman), but did not change abstinence rates. On the basis of these two controlled trials, naltrexone was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, in the absence of the usual pharmaceutical industry interest.

In the intervening 20 years, there have been more than 30 clinical trials of naltrexone in alcohol addiction (21, 22, 23). While the majority of these clinical trials demonstrate efficacy of naltrexone in reducing risk for relapse to heavy drinking, the effect size is small, with many patients having no benefit. This has resulted in multiple reports in which the naltrexone arm outcomes are not significantly better than the placebo arm outcomes (24). This is an expected outcome, given the tremendous heterogeneity of clinical alcohol addiction. It is likely that important clinical characteristics, such as compliance, severity and duration of alcohol addiction, co-morbidity (both medical and psychiatric), and/or attendance at psychosocial treatment, may influence outcomes.

In this situation, multiple investigators have attempted to define clinical characteristics which might enhance the probability of naltrexone response. Some clinical measures have shown promise in characterizing a naltrexone responder—high alcohol craving (25, 26, 27) and strong family history of alcohol addiction (25), but family history of alcohol addiction did not predict response to naltrexone in the COMBINE multicentre trial (28). Alcohol addicts who experience greater euphoria after alcohol may have a better response to naltrexone (29).

A118G OPRM1 mis-sense single nucleotide polymorphism: molecular and cellular effects

A common mis-sense single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP; rs 1799971) in the first exon of the mu opioid receptor gene, OPRM1, was described by Bergen et al. (30), A118G, or N40G, reflecting the fact that the A allele encodes asparagine, while the minor G allele encodes aspartate. The A (asparagine) allele is thought to be N-glycosylated (31), whereas this is not possible for the G (aspartate) allele, as there is no free amino group. Subsequent studies (32, 33, 34, 35) revealed large ethnic differences in allele frequencies (Table 11.1).

Table 11.1 Frequency of G allele for A118G SNP in ethnic groups

Ethnic group

Frequency G

Ethnic group

Frequency G





African American








European American




This allele has been the subject of multiple molecular investigations to determine its functional consequences, in terms of gene expression, protein translation, receptor signalling, and receptor density. Initially, Bond et al. (36) reported that the minor ‘G’ allele mu opioid receptor resulted in decreased affinity for binding to beta-endorphin, compared to the common ‘A’ allele receptor. There was no change in binding affinity for alkaloid ligands. This result has not been confirmed in subsequent investigations (37, 38). In one such study transfected HEK293 cells (a fibroblastoid cell type) were used (37), but the 118G allele did not differ in binding affinity for beta-endorphin, compared to 118A. Beyer et al. (37) also reported that the 118G allele was not different from the 118A allele in rate of desensitization, internalization, or resensitization, but 118G had decreased (p.99) transcription compared to 118A. Ramchandani et al. (38) also did not report differences in kinetics of binding of beta-endorphin to the 118G, compared to 118A. Mahmoud et al. (39), using a whole-cell patch clamp technique in acutely dissociated trigeminal ganglion neurons, reported that morphine was fivefold less active at the ‘G’ allele receptor form in activating a Ca2+ channel. There was no such difference for fentanyl. Zhang et al. (40) conducted allelic imbalance studies in post-mortem human brain, revealing a marked decrease in 118G allele mRNA. In a second experiment, they showed in vitro evidence of a marked decreased translation of the 118G mRNA (40).

A118G OPRM1 mis-sense single nucleotide polymorphism: animal model studies

In the murine OPRM1 gene, there is no equivalent of the A118G naturally-occurring variation. A homologous variation (A112G, with the A allele encoding asparagines and the G allele encoding aspartate, as in the human OPRM1 gene) was created by bacterial artificial chromosome engineering and murine transgenic techniques by Mague et al. (41). They reported decreased transcription and translation of the G allele in transgenic C57Bl/6 mouse brain, a result congruous with the human post-mortem brain ex vivo results of Zhang et al. (40), as well as the in vitro results of Beyer et al. (37). There was a blunted locomotor response to morphine in the 112G mice, as well as decreased morphine conditioned place preference (CPP) in 112G female mice, the latter being a sexually dimorphic response, with 112G males showing the expected CPP response to morphine.

Two other forms of transgenic mice were produced, using homologous recombination to replace the murine OPRM1 exon 1 with one of the two forms (118A and 118G) of human OPRM1 exon 1 (38). These investigators conducted in vivo microdialysis experiments in the ventral striatum, demonstrating that the 118G mice had the expected elevations in dopamine release after alcohol, while the 118A mice had no significant increase over baseline. These data suggest that the ‘G’ allele conveys an increased rewarding valence to alcohol, compared to the ‘A’ allele.

There have been several studies of a similar SNP in the rhesus monkey, the C77G, which results in a homologous amino acid change, asparagine to aspartate (42, 43, 44). Both groups report that the G allele monkeys consume significantly more alcohol than the CC monkeys. Further, both groups note that naltrexone significantly decreases alcohol intake in the GG monkeys.

These reports, taken together, are consistent with the hypothesis that the 118G allele (or its equivalent in mouse and primate) conveys a greater rewarding effect of alcohol, a difference which is inhibited by naltrexone. These studies are remarkably consistent, given the species, paradigm, technical, and molecular engineering differences among these studies.

A118G OPRM1 mis-sense single nucleotide polymorphism: human pharmacogenetic studies of alcohol

There have been several pharmacogenetic reports of the A118G SNP in human laboratory experiments involving alcohol (38, 45, 46, 47, 48). In a laboratory investigation of the A118G pharmacogenetics of alcohol reward, Ray et al. (45, 46) demonstrated that the G allele carriers experienced significantly greater euphoria after standard oral doses of alcohol (while controlling for breath alcohol concentration), compared to AA persons. Further, naltrexone significantly blunted the euphoria in the G allele carriers and was without effect in the AA group.

In agreement with this result, Ramchandani reported that G allele carriers had a greater striatal release of dopamine after alcohol (using a raclopride positron emission tomography scan technique), compared to AA participants. In a more naturalistic approach, Ray et al. (47) studied (p.100) drinking habits of social drinkers over a five-day period, analysing subjective responses to alcohol by A118G genotype. G allele carriers reported more significantly more ‘vigour’ and less negative mood after drinking, compared to the AA group. Similarly, Setiawan et al. (48) studied the subjective response to alcohol in social drinkers after a dose of naltrexone. Naltrexone significantly decreased the ethanol-induced ‘euphoria’ to a priming dose of alcohol in subjects with the G allele, compared to AA participants.

Taken together, these human laboratory studies of the A118G variant on effect of alcohol are remarkably consistent, with the clear conclusion that the G allele permits people to experience alcohol in a more rewarding manner, compared to AA individuals. It is also notable that naltrexone is able to blunt this euphoria in G allele carriers, but not in AA persons. This latter observation is consistent with subjective reports of the effect of naltrexone in clinical trials for alcohol addiction, in which the medication attenuated alcohol-induced euphoria among responders (29).

Pharmacogenetic studies of naltrexone clinical trials for alcohol addiction

There have been multiple pharmacogenetic studies of naltrexone clinical trials for alcohol addiction published in the last decade. The first such publication (49) was a retrospective analysis of three naltrexone trials of similar design, two conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and one at the University of Connecticut, United States. Compliance was monitored by riboflavin testing and by pill counts. Eighty-two patients (71 of European descent) who were randomized to naltrexone and 59 randomized to placebo (all of European descent) in one of three randomized placebo-controlled clinical trials of naltrexone were genotyped at the A+118G (Asn40Asp) and C+17T (Ala6Val) SNPs in the mu-opioid gene (OPRM1). The association between genotype and drinking outcomes was measured over 12 weeks of treatment. For purposes of examining the pharmacogenetics of naltrexone response, the analysis was limited to those subjects with well-defined outcome data who had at minimum six weeks’ exposure to the medication. The primary drinking outcome considered was relapse to heavy drinking (≥5 drinks in a single day for men or ≥4 drinks for women). This definition of heavy drinking was the primary outcome for each of the trials. The timeline follow-back method was employed (along with self-report) to measure alcohol consumption (50). There was a significantly greater proportion of naltrexone-treated subjects with the G allele variant who did not return to heavy drinking (no relapse) compared to those with those homozygous for the A allele (Wald = 4.04, 1 degree of freedom, odds ratio = 3.47 (95% confidence interval: 1.03–11.67), p = 0.045) (Table 11.2).

Table 11.2 A118G genotype and good outcome in naltrexone studies (49, 51) of pharmacotherapy for alcohol addiction

Genotype at A118G







G allele carriers





Homozygous A





a P = 0.04, odds ratio = 3.5.

b P = 0.005, genotype × medication interaction; odds ratio = 5.8.

This finding was confirmed in a larger multisite study of naltrexone, acamprosate, and placebo for alcohol addiction (51). Alcohol-addicted subjects were treated for 16 weeks with 100 mg of (p.101) naltrexone. All participants received medical management alone or with combined behavioural intervention. When considering only those patients receiving medical management alone, there was a significant effect of naltrexone on ‘good outcome’ among the 118G carriers, while there was no such effect for the patients receiving naltrexone who were homozygous A118 (Table 11.2). However, there was no such effect in the naltrexone group receiving medical management with combined behavioural intervention. The combined behavioural intervention was delivered by licensed behavioural health specialists in up to 20 flexible participant need-adjusted 50-minute sessions. Combined behavioural intervention, an intensive and specific alcohol intervention, may have compensated for the placebo effect, thereby suppressing the chances of observing a main effect of naltrexone or a genetic interaction. The data presented by Anton et al. (51) are consistent with this thinking. A gene × medication interaction may be observable only in patients who can show obvious benefit from the medication over placebo.

In a small Korean study of naltrexone in alcohol addiction (52), subjects adherent to naltrexone treatment with one or two copies of the Asp40 allele took a significantly longer time than the Asn40 group to relapse to heavy drinking (p = 0.014). Although not significant, the Asn40 group treated with naltrexone had a 10.6 times greater relapse rate than the Asp40 variant group. There was no effect on abstinence.

In the Veterans Administration multisite study of naltrexone in alcohol addiction, Gelernter et al. (53) reported that the 118G allele did not predict outcome among 149 participants in the naltrexone group and 64 in the placebo group. There are several possible explanations for this result. Firstly, the efficacy of naltrexone is certainly influenced by compliance, and the compliant population was defined as those who opened the medication bottle a minimum of 50% of the time, so that medication compliance was defined liberally. Secondly, it is likely that high levels of co-morbidity influence response to naltrexone. The study population had substantial rates of recurrent unipolar illness, antisocial personality, and anxiety disorders and had severe alcohol addiction of long duration. These factors might overwhelm any genetic predisposition to respond to naltrexone. Thirdly, the study had limited power: for example, there were only nine 118G carriers in the placebo group.

Coller et al. (54) recently reported the results of a naltrexone and cognitive-behavioural therapy trial in 100 Australian alcohol-addicted persons. They reported an overall effect of naltrexone on relapse to heavy drinking, but no influence of the A188G variants. The absence of a control group makes this study less ideal, as does the small sample size, with 68 study completers.

Taken together, the A118G clinical trials in naltrexone treatment for alcohol addiction remain promising, but there are clear unanswered questions, including the influence of counselling, compliance, and co-morbidity on outcome. Available depot formulations of naltrexone may reduce non-compliance, but the influence of co-morbidity and counselling may be more difficult to resolve. It will be necessary to conduct pharmacogenetic alcohol addiction naltrexone trials, for which participants are randomized by A118G genotype into the naltrexone or placebo arm to reduce possible sources of bias. These trials should be characterized by:

  • large size (at least about 150 persons per arm, including oversampling of G allele carriers) to ensure adequate power

  • rigorous assessment of compliance

  • randomization stratified by genotype

  • careful assessment of comorbidity

  • modest psychotherapeutic intervention, so as to mirror ‘real-world’ clinical practice.

(p.102) Summary

There is a growing interest in the association between mu opioid receptors and addiction. There are extensive data, across species, to suggest that the 118G form of the mu opioid receptor is characterized by decreased transcription and translation. There are convincing data, from murine, primate, and human laboratory studies, that the 118G (or its species-specific homologue) variant permits alcohol to have a greater rewarding valence, leading to increased alcohol consumption. Further, the human and rhesus data are equally convincing that naltrexone is able to blunt this greater rewarding signal. Lastly, the possibility that A118G alleles can be used clinically to identify alcohol-addicted persons with a greater probability to have a beneficial response to naltrexone is a hypothesis that deserves testing on a large scale, with the characteristics noted earlier.


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