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Critical Reviews™ in Neurobiology

ISSN Druckformat: 0892-0915
ISSN Online: 2375-0014

Archives: Volume 10, 1996 to Volume 20, 2008

Critical Reviews™ in Neurobiology

DOI: 10.1615/CritRevNeurobiol.v15.i34.30
40 pages

Adaptations in Adenosine Signaling in Drug Dependence: Therapeutic Implications

Stephen P. Hack
Pain Management Research Institute, Royal North Shore Hospital, University of Sydney,
Macdonald J. Christie
Pain Management Research Institute, Royal North Shore Hospital, University of Sydney,


Adenosine is an important endogenous purine neuromodulator in the central nervous system that modulates many important cellular processes in neurons.The physiological effects of adenosine are transduced through four pharmacologically classified receptor types i.e., A1, A2A, A2B and A3. All adenosine receptors are G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR) of the type 1 variety. Adaptations in adenosine signaling have been implicated in a wide range of pathophysiological processes, such as epilepsies, sleep disorders, pain, and drug addictions. Knowledge relating to the etiology of addictive processes is far from complete, and as a result the therapeutic options to deal with drug dependence issues are limited. Drugs of abuse mediate their effects through many distinct cellular effectors, such as neurotransmitter transporters, ion channels, and receptor proteins. However, a unifying feature of the major drugs of abuse—i.e., opiates, cocaine, and alcohol—is that they all directly or indirectly modulate adenosine signaling in neurons. Agents targeting adenosine receptors may therefore offer novel avenues for the development of therapies to manage or treat addictions. A consistent cellular adaptation to long-term drug use is the up- or down-regulation of signaling pathways driven by adenylyl cyclase/cyclic AMP (cAMP) in several brain regions linked to addiction. Withdrawal from μ-opioids or cocaine following their chronic administration leads to an upregulation of adenylyl cyclase-mediated signaling, resulting in high levels of cAMP. Cyclic AMP produced in this way acts as a substrate for the endogenous production of adenosine. Increased levels of endogenous adenosine interact with presynaptic A1 receptors to inhibit the excessive neuronal excitation often seen during morphine/cocaine withdrawal. These pre-clinical findings fit well with other data indicating that drugs which boost endogenous adenosine levels or directly interact with inhibitory A1 receptors can alleviate many of the negative consequences of opioid/cocaine withdrawal. Ethanol interacts directly with the adenosine system by blocking nucleoside transporters in the cell membrane. The effect of this inhibition is an increase in extracellular adenosine levels and adenosine receptor activation. Depending on the time course of ethanol exposure and the receptor population present, cAMP levels are either reduced or increased. Chronic ethanol treatment tends to reduce cAMP levels as a consequence of the desensitization of stimulatory GPCRs (such as A2-type receptors) seen following prolonged receptor activation. Unlike opiates and cocaine, adenosine receptor activation worsens the behavioral effects of drug ingestion, and evidence indicates that agents that negatively modulate adenosine receptor function have some utility in attenuating the effects of ethanol use. Taken together, these data suggest that pharmacological manipulation of adenosine signaling represents a potentially useful means of managing drug dependence.