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The combination of opioids and ethanol can synergistically depress breathing and the acute ventilatory response to hypoxia. Multiple studies have shown that the underlying mechanisms for this may involve calcium channel inhibition in central neurons. But we have previously identified opioid receptors in the carotid bodies and shown that their activation inhibits calcium influx into the chemosensitive cells. Given that the carotid bodies contribute to the drive to breathe and underpin the acute hypoxic ventilatory response, we hypothesized that ethanol and opioids may act synergistically in these peripheral sensory organs to further inhibit calcium influx and therefore inhibit ventilation.


Carotid bodies were removed from 56 Sprague–Dawley rats (1021 days old) and then enzymatically dissociated to allow calcium imaging of isolated chemosensitive type I cells. Cells were stimulated with high K+ in the presence and absence of the µ-opioid agonist [D-Ala2, N-MePhe4, Gly-ol]-enkephalin (DAMGO) (10 µM), a maximal sublethal concentration of ethanol (3 g L-1, 65.1 mM) or a combination of both.


DAMGO alone significantly inhibited Ca2+ influx but this effect was not potentiated by the high concentration of ethanol.


These results indicate for the first time that while opioids may suppress breathing via an action at the level of the carotid bodies, ethanol is unlikely to potentiate inhibition via this pathway. Thus, the synergistic effects of ethanol and opioids on ventilatory parameters are likely mediated by central rather than peripheral actions.


This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0