When you hear the words “immune system,” you probably think of your body fighting off a cold or the flu. While protecting your body from illness is its main function, new research from the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research indicates that it might also hold the potential to fight the opioid epidemic by helping us understand more about cravings.
The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to identify and defend against foreign bodies, like germs. It can tell the difference between normal, healthy cells and unhealthy cells by recognizing what are called danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs), which are molecules that are released when cells are damaged. They initiate an inflammatory response, which helps to eliminate the cause of the cell damage, clear out dying cells and tissues, and initiate tissue repair.
In the immune system, there are specific peptides (amino acid compounds that essentially tell cells how to function). Depending on the type, these peptides can kill bacteria, viruses, fungi, and even certain mutated or cancerous cells. The Vanderbilt researches believe that these peptides could have an influence on drug cravings. In studies on male mice and rats, they found that immune peptides could be targeted, changing the cravings that the rodents had for food and sugar.
Although there can be no single cure for addiction, considering that it’s influenced by so many factors, this research could at least lead to ways for people to cut down on cravings while they deal with those other factors. The hope is that eventually scientists could go to specific populations of people who are at higher risk for addiction and target the systems that could improve their chances of recovery. Right now, the possibility of human trials is still a long way off.
This isn’t the only association between the immune system and opioids. Because prescription opioids are meant to fight pain, it makes sense that they would have an effect on inflammation. Inflammatory pain is responsible for many chronic pain conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE, lupus), gout and ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Long term use and high doses of opioids can be damaging to the immune system, however. Morphine and related drugs suppress the immune system, meaning that among the many other concerns doctors have to take into consideration when prescribing opioid medications, they have to take into account the added risk of infections. This is especially important in people who are suffering from burns or have cancer, HIV, or other diseases that affect the immune system.
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