Pleasure, addiction and hypocretin (orexin)

TitlePleasure, addiction and hypocretin (orexin)
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsMcGregor R, Thannickal T, Siegel JM
Book TitleHandbook of Clinical Neurology, The Human Hypothalamus: Middle And Posterior Region
Date Published2021

The hypocretins/orexins were discovered in 1998.Within 2 years, this led to the discovery of the cause of human narcolepsy, a 90% loss of hypothalamic neurons containing these peptides. Further work demonstrated that these neurons were not simply linked to waking. Rather these neurons were active during pleasurable behaviors in waking and were silenced by aversive stimulation. This was seen in wild-type mice, rats, cats, and dogs. It was also evident in humans, with increased Hcrt release during pleasurable activities and decreased release, to the levels seen in sleep, during pain.We found that human heroin addicts have, on average, an increase of 54% in the number of detectable Hcrt neurons compared to “control” human brains and that these Hcrt neurons are substantially smaller than those in control brains. We found that in mice, chronic morphine administration induced the same changes in Hcrt neuron number and size. Our studies in the mouse allowed us to determine the specificity, dose response relations, time course of the change in the number of Hcrt neurons, and that the increased number of Hcrt neurons after opiates was not due to neurogenesis. Furthermore, we found that it took a month or longer for these anatomical changes in the mouse brain to return to baseline. Human narcoleptics, despite their prescribed use of several commonly addictive drugs, do not show significant evidence of dose escalation or substance use disorder. Similarly, mice in which the peptide has been eliminated are resistant to addiction. These findings are consistent with the concept that an increased number of Hcrt neurons may underlie and maintain opioid or cocaine use disorders.