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Open Access Research article

Nitric oxide and histone deacetylases modulate cocaine-induced mu-opioid receptor levels in PC12 cells

Warren Winick-Ng1, Francesco Leri2 and Bettina E Kalisch1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1, Canada

2 Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1, Canada

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BMC Pharmacology and Toxicology 2012, 13:11  doi:10.1186/2050-6511-13-11

Published: 18 October 2012



Cocaine exposure has been reported to alter central μ-opioid receptor (MOR) expression in vivo. The present study employed an in vitro cellular model to explore possible mechanisms that may be involved in this action of cocaine.


To assess the effects of cocaine on MOR levels, two treatment regimens were tested in PC12 cells: single continuous or multiple intermittent. MOR protein levels were assessed by western blot analysis and quantitative PCR was used to determine relative MOR mRNA expression levels. To evaluate the role of nitric oxide (NO) and histone acetylation in cocaine-induced MOR expression, cells were pre-treated with the NO synthase inhibitor Nω-nitro-L-arginine methylester (L-NAME) or the non-selective histone acetyltransferase inhibitor curcumin.


Both cocaine treatment regimens significantly increased MOR protein levels and protein stability, but only multiple intermittent treatments increased MOR mRNA levels as well as c-fos mRNA levels and activator protein 1 binding activity. Both regimens increased NO production, and pre-treatment with L-NAME prevented cocaine-induced increases in MOR protein and mRNA levels. Single and multiple cocaine treatment regimens inhibited histone deacetylase activity, and pre-treatment with curcumin prevented cocaine-induced up-regulation of MOR protein expression.


In the PC12 cell model, both NO and histone deacetylase activity regulate cocaine-induced MOR expression at both the transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels. Based on these novel findings, it is hypothesized that epigenetic mechanisms are implicated in cocaine’s action on MOR expression in neurons.

Cocaine; PC12 cells; Histone acetylation; Nitric oxide; Mu-opioid receptor