Morphine-mediated release of miR-138 in astrocyte-derived extracellular vesicles promotes microglial activation

Ke Liao, Fang Niu, Guoku Hu, Lu Yang, Blake Dallon, Delaney Villarreal, Shilpa Buch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Opioids, such as morphine, are the mainstay for the management of postsurgical pain. Over the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in deaths related to opioid overdose. While opioid abuse has been shown to result in increased neuroinflammation, mechanism(s) underlying this process, remain less understood. In recent years, microRNAs have emerged as key mediators of gene expression regulating both paracrine signaling and cellular crosstalk. MiRNAs constitute the extracellular vesicle (EV) cargo and can shuttle from the donor to the recipient cells. Exposure of human primary astrocytes to morphine resulted in induction and release of miR-138 in the EVs isolated from conditioned media of cultured astrocytes. Released EVs were, in turn, taken up by the microglia, leading to activation of these latter cells. Interestingly, activation of microglia involved binding of the GUUGUGU motif of miR138 to the endosomal toll like receptor (TLR)7, leading, in turn, to cellular activation. These findings were further corroborated in vivo in wildtype mice wherein morphine administration resulted in increased microglial activation in the thalamus. In TLR7−/− mice on the other hand, morphine failed to induce microglial activation. These findings have ramifications for the development of EV-loaded anti-miRNAs as therapeutics for alleviating neuroinflammation in opioids abusers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12027
JournalJournal of Extracellular Vesicles
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • drug abuse
  • extracellular vesicles
  • miRNA
  • microglia
  • neuroinflammation
  • opioids

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Histology
  • Cell Biology


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