Delta opioid receptor activation is protective during hypoxic injury. Many adaptive responses occur during exposure to hypoxia to facilitate survival. It is possible that increased activity of the delta opioid receptor system is one such adaptation. We tested the hypothesis that mice exposed to prolonged hypoxia have increased expression of the delta opioid receptor in brain tissue. Prolonged exposure to hypoxia (9% oxygen, balance nitrogen) continuously for seven days selectively decreased delta opioid receptor expression in mouse brain homogenate. The same hypoxic treatment had no effects on either mu or kappa opioid receptor expression, indicating that this response was not due to non-selective degradation of protein. Shorter term hypoxic treatments (one day and three days) did not induce changes in delta opioid receptor expression in whole brain homogenate. Binding assays were also conducted in grossly dissected brain regions (cortex, midbrain, hindbrain) to determine whether the shorter term treatments would induce changes in receptor expression in more discrete areas. No consistent changes in delta opioid receptor expression were detected in these brain regions. These data demonstrate that opioid delta receptors are hypoxia sensitive and may be a part of an adaptive process to increase survival in the organism. One possible cause for the decrease in delta opioid receptor expression following seven days of hypoxic exposure may be receptor down-regulation caused by an increased release of endogenous substances acting at delta receptors. As delta opioid receptor agonists appear promising for therapeutic potential in management of hypoxic injury, changes in delta receptor expression in response to long-term hypoxia could impact potential utilization of delta agonists in patients suffering chronic hypoxia.
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