Long-access heroin self-administration induces region specific reduction of grey matter volume and microglia reactivity in the rat

Nazzareno Cannella, Stefano Tambalo, Veronica Lunerti, Giulia Scuppa, Luisa de Vivo, Sarah Abdulmalek, Analia Kinen, James Mackle, Brittany Kuhn, Leah C Solberg Woods, Dongjun Chung, Peter Kalivas, Laura Soverchia, Massimo Ubaldi, Gary Hardiman, Angelo Bifone, Roberto Ciccocioppo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In opioid use disorder (OUD) patients, a decrease in brain grey matter volume (GMV) has been reported. It is unclear whether this is the consequence of prolonged exposure to opioids or is a predisposing causal factor in OUD development. To investigate this, we conducted a structural MRI longitudinal study in NIH Heterogeneous Stock rats exposed to heroin self-administration and age-matched naïve controls housed in the same controlled environment. Structural MRI scans were acquired before (MRI ) and after (MRI ) a prolonged period of long access heroin self-administration resulting in escalation of drug intake. Heroin intake resulted in reduced GMV in various cortical and sub-cortical brain regions. In drug-naïve controls no difference was found between MRI and MRI . Notably, the degree of GMV reduction in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the insula positively correlated with the amount of heroin consumed and the escalation of heroin use. In a preliminary gene expression analysis, we identified a number of transcripts linked to immune response and neuroinflammation. This prompted us to hypothesize a link between changes in microglia homeostasis and loss of GMV. For this reason, we analyzed the number and morphology of microglial cells in the mPFC and insula. The number of neurons and their morphology was also evaluated. The primary motor cortex, where no GMV change was observed, was used as negative control. We found no differences in the number of neurons and microglia cells following heroin. However, in the same regions where reduced GMV was detected, we observed a shift towards a rounder shape and size reduction in microglia, suggestive of their homeostatic change towards a reactive state. Altogether these findings suggest that escalation of heroin intake correlates with loss of GMV in specific brain regions and that this phenomenon is linked to changes in microglial morphology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)210-220
Number of pages11
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Early online date05 Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2024


  • Opioids
  • Abuse
  • Neuroinflammation
  • Immune System
  • Addiction

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