Targeting gut bacteria could help treat opioid addiction, study suggests

Research reveals surprising connection between gut bacteria and chronic pain.

Using diet and treatments targeting the gut may one day be a viable method to treat and manage opioid addiction, according to new research out of the University of Alberta.

U of A pharmacologist Anna Taylor, a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, is looking at treatment options for chronic pain patients that provide an alternative to opioids, the current standard treatment.

Opioids are effective at treating chronic pain but their highly addictive nature has led to a devastating drug epidemic across North America.

In a study published in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, Taylor's team found clear differences between the microbiomes of morphine-dependent mice and healthy mice that had never been exposed to opioids.

When the gut bacteria from morphine-dependent mice were introduced into a control group of mice, the control mice began almost immediately to show behavioural symptoms and brain changes consistent with opioid dependence.

The evidence indicates a clear connection between the microbiome and the brain, Taylor noted, adding that the research may also be useful to find safer ways to treat pain in general.

She will be working with Bruce Dick, a psychologist at the U of A's Multidisciplinary Pain Clinic, to conduct a similar study among fibromyalgia patients to see whether the results seen in mice can be replicated in humans and in a chronic pain population rather than an opioid-dependent one.

In the long term, this area of research could have a massive impact on patients who are dealing with chronic pain, which persists in a wide array of debilitating diseases including arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

In addition to the physical suffering, Taylor explained that depression and anxiety are often associated with chronic pain, and were formerly thought to be symptoms that arise from living in pain. New research suggests that these mental health conditions may actually be a result of chronic pain rewiring brain circuitry, resulting in changes to a person's mood.

Treatments that target the stomach and focus on restoring the microbiome have the potential to improve brain health, as well as reduce the negative impacts associated with conventional opioid treatments.

"We want to explore different techniques that could be used to restore the microbiome and hopefully through this restoration, we can find better treatment options for those who suffer from chronic pain," Taylor said.