University of Toronto scientists have found that mice without a specific channel in the brain kept breathing normally during an opioid overdose, a finding that may help prevent accidental deaths.

“Opioids are highly effective at killing pain, but they can also kill people by depressing their breathing and at the same time sedating them so that it can be impossible for them to wake up from oxygen deprivation,” says Richard Horner, a professor in the departments of Medicine and Physiology. “This is how people can overdose by accident: taking extra opioids by mismanaging their prescription or inadvertently combining them with alcohol or sleeping pills, or having undiagnosed sleep apnea, you create a perfect storm.”

Horner and colleague Gaspard Montandon published their results December 16 in the Online First edition of Anesthesiology, the official medical journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).

The researchers zeroed in on a microscopic site in the medulla, a part of the brain containing just a few hundred cells that is thought to be the actual place where the rhythm of breathing is generated. They gave opioids to mice that lacked one very specific sub-unit of a particular potassium channel, and the mice continued to breathe normally.

“There are several ways that opioids can cause breathing problems, but this is a crucial one,” says Montandon, also of the departments of medicine and physiology. “It’s the first time anyone has identified where and how opioids work – and how to shut down their most dangerous effects.”

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