Activation of Protein Kinase C (PKC)α or PKCε as an Approach to Increase Morphine Tolerance in Respiratory Depression and Lethal Overdose

Abstract Long-term use of opioids is hindered by respiratory depression and the possibility for fatal overdose in drug abusers. This is attributed to higher levels of tolerance that develops against antinociception than to respiratory depression. Identifying important mechanisms that would increase morphine respiratory depression and overdose tolerance could lead to the safer use of opioids. Because protein kinase C (PKC) activity mediates the development and maintenance of morphine antinociceptive tolerance, we hypothesized that activating PKCα or PKCε at the pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC) can increase morphine tolerance in respiration and overdose. Laser microdissection and quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction were used to compare the relative mRNA abundances of PKCα, γ, and ε between ventrolateral periaqueductal gray (vlPAG) and preBötC. To test whether PKCα or ε could enhance morphine tolerance in respiratory depression and overdose, lentivirus carrying the wild type, constitutively activated mutants, and small interference RNA against PKCα or ε was stereotaxically injected into the preBötC. Expression of constitutively active PKC (CAPKC) α or ε, but not wild-type PKC (WTPKC) α or ε, at the preBötC allowed rats to develop tolerance to morphine respiratory depression. In terms of lethality, expression of WTPKCε, CAPKCα, or CAPKCε at preBötC increased morphine tolerance to lethal overdose. CAPKCε-expressing rats developed the highest level of respiratory depression tolerance. Furthermore, when CAPKCε lentivirus was injected into the vlPAG, rats were able to develop significant antinociceptive tolerance at low doses of morphine that normally do not cause tolerance. The approach of increasing morphine respiratory depression and lethality tolerance by increasing PKCα or ε activity at preBötC could be used to make opioids safer for long-term use.