Enkephalins are endogenous opioid peptides that are derived from a pre-proenkephalin precursor protein. They are thought to be vital in regulating many physiological functions, including pain perception and analgesia, responses to stress, aggression and dominance. Here we have used a genetic approach to study the role of the mammalian opioid system. We disrupted the pre-proenkephalin gene using homologous recombination in embryonic stem cells to generate enkephalin-deficient mice. Mutant enk-/- animals are healthy, fertile, and care for their offspring, but display significant behavioural abnormalities. Mice with the enk-/- genotype are more anxious and males display increased offensive aggressiveness. Mutant animals show marked differences from controls in supraspinal, but not in spinal, responses to painful stimuli. Unexpectedly, enk-/- mice exhibit normal stress-induced analgesia. Our results show that enkephalins modulate responses to painful stimuli. Thus, genetic factors may contribute significantly to the experience of pain.
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