The use of hypercapnic conditions to assess opioid-induced respiratory depression in rats

Morgan L. Crowley, Luis F. Restrepo, Lea R. Gamez-Jimenez, Avi Patel, Tobias Braun, Victoria L.C. Pallares, Nicholas P. Ho, Morgan E. Reeves, Christopher R. McCurdy, Lance R. McMahon, Takato Hiranita

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Introduction: Whole-body plethysmography (WBP) in unrestrained, non-anesthetized rodents is a preclinical method to assess the respiratory depressant effects of opioids, the leading cause of opioid overdose death in humans. However, low baseline respiration rates under normocapnic conditions (i.e., “floor” effect) can render the measurement of respiratory decreases challenging. We assessed hypercapnia-induced increases in respiration as a strategy to assess opioid-induced decreases in respiration in rats. Methods: WBP was used to assess respiration frequency, tidal volume and minute volume in the presence of normocapnic and hypercapnic (8% CO2) conditions in rats during the rat diurnal period of the light cycle. The mu-opioid receptor agonist fentanyl was administered intravenously, and the hot plate test was used to assess acute antinociception. Results and discussion: Hypercapnia-induced increases in respiratory parameters (frequency, minute volume, and tidal volume) were decreased by fentanyl at doses that did not decrease the same parameters under the normocapnic conditions. These findings show that hypercapnia increases sensitivity to respiratory depressant effects of fentanyl, as compared with assessments during the rat diurnal period when activity and breathing rate are generally low, i.e., there is a floor effect. The current approach is highly sensitive to opioid-induced respiratory depression, and therefore provides a useful method for assessment in a pre-clinical setting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107101
JournalJournal of Pharmacological and Toxicological Methods
StatePublished - Sep 1 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Antinociception
  • Frequency
  • Hotplate
  • Hypercapnic
  • Methods
  • Minute volume
  • Opioids
  • Potency ratio
  • Respiration
  • Safety window

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology


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