Intravenous heroin abusers suffer a great variety of infections, including AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). We developed an experimental mouse model to evaluate the long-term effect of in vivo morphine administration during retrovirus-induced immune dysfunction. Mice were treated daily for 11 weeks with increasing doses of morphine. Morphine treatment produced a decrease in body weight and spleen cell number. Murine retrovirus infection provoked an increase in body weight due to enlargement of lymphoid organs, and an increase in the percentage and absolute number of CD4+ and Mac 1+ cells. Interestingly, retrovirus-infected mice that were also morphine-treated did not show the increase in the relative proportion of Mac 1+ cells. Moreover, under the experimental conditions of protein-malnutrition and morphine treatment potentiation of immune dysfunction by murine retrovirus infection was investigated. Retrovirus infection-induced splenocyte proliferation was partially regulated by morphine treatment. Splenocytes from retrovirus-infected mice presented at higher percentage of IL-2R+ cells and, lower levels of sIL-2R in splenocyte supernatants. Mitogen-stimulated splenocytes had a lower production of interferon-gamma as well as an increase in the secretion of tumor necrosis factor-alpha. Thus morphine altered the immune system by down-regulating splenocyte proliferation, because retrovirus infection-induced splenocyte proliferation was partially regulated by morphine treatment. We also evaluated the effects of joint murine retrovirus infection and protein undernutrition on the thymus cell subsets. Retrovirus infection was associated with a decrease in the absolute number of Thy 1+, CD4+ and CD8+ cells per thymus with the CD8+ cell subset being the most affected. Moreover, retrovirus-infected mice presented a dramatic decrease in the percentage of double-positive (CD4+ CD8+) cells in the thymus as well as changes in its immunoarchitecture. While protein undernutrition alone did not produce further differences between infected versus non-infected, protein-undernourished, morphine treatment induced a greater decrease in thymocyte number than that seen in retrovirus- or morphine-treated animals alone.
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