Enkephalins and Proenkephalins

Enkephalins are opioid peptides that are found at high levels in the brain and endocrine tissues. The major species of newly appearing enkephalin-containing peptide appears to be the intact precursor, proenkephalin 1.

Related Peptides
Opioid peptides constitute a large group of small proteins that interact with cell membrane receptors similarly to opiate alkaloids, morphine and heroin. Opiate alkaloid derivatives are extensively used for analgesia and anesthesia. The original opioid peptide families are enkephalins, dynorphins, and endorphins. Representative peptides from these three opioid peptide families have been found in the heart. Three different opiate receptors have been cloned and sequenced: mu (µ), delta (d), and kappa (?) 2.

Kosterlitz and Hughes discovered enkephalins and endorphins in 1975 3.

Structural Characteristics
The amino acid sequence of methionine-enkephalin (Met-Enk) is tyrosine-glycine-glycine-phenylalanine-methionine. The proenkephalin sequence contains four copies of the pentapeptide Met-Enk, one of leu-enkephalin, and two extended forms of Met-enk (Met-enk-arg6-phe7 and met-enk-arg6-gly7-leu8). Pairs of basic amino acids mark these small peptides for cleavage from the precursor. Proenkephalin is processed by endoproteolytic enyzmes termed prohormone convertases, which recognize and cleave at dibasic amino acid sites. Initial proenkephalin processing starts before transport to the golgi network and are rapid. Later processing requires an acidic environment distal to the golgi network. Proenkephalin has a fast cleavage to peptide B, and slower cleavages yield other intermediate sized products that are cleaved ultimately to the penta to octapeptides. The different molecular-weight end products found in diverse tissues (muscle, neural, endocrine) may be due to variations in the cleavage sequence and local enzymatic conditions for processing 2.

Mode of Action
Pentapeptides Met-Enk and Leu-Enk, the endogenous ligands for the opiate receptor, function as neuromodulators or neurotransmitters. The most prominent action of enkephalins in the mammalian brain is depression of neuronal firing rate and it has been suggested that these peptides are inhibitory transmitters. The response of central neurones to several putative transmitter substances is depressed or enhanced by enkephalins, suggesting a postsynaptic action. It has also been shown that enkephalins suppress the K+-induced release of noradrenaline, dopamine and acetylcholine from rat brain slices, indicating a presynaptic effect. The firing of myenteric neurones in the guinea-pig ileum is inhibited by enkephalins. This inhibition is probably due to a direct postsynaptic action of the enkephalins resulting in a hyperpolarisation of the neuronal membrane 4. To achieve their biological function, enkephalins must be transported from an aqueous phase to the lipid-rich environment of their membrane bound receptor proteins. It is now known that Met-enk acts via three main subtypes of receptors referred to as µ, d and ? - receptors. While the first two receptor subtypes mediate the classic opioid effects of Met-enk, ?-receptors are reported to be involved in the non-opioid actions of the peptide, i.e. the inhibitory effect on the cell growth 5.

Proenkephalin is a precursor for neuropeptides with a variety of functions in the neuroendocrine and nervous systems. Upon activation, T-helper lymphocytes were found to express high levels of proenkephalin mRNA and to secrete large amounts of the Met-Enk neuropeptide, perhaps indicating an axis by which the immune and nervous systems interact 6. Enkephalins cause antinociception and potentiated morphine analgesia but they also block the development of tolerance and physical dependence. In addition to their central and peripheral antinociceptive function, opioids can modulate immune activity and cell proliferation. Moreover it is known that they have significant role in different physiological processes like cell differentiation and regeneration, inflammation, cancer and angiogenesis and analgesia effects 5.


  1. Fleminger G, Lahm HW, Udenfriend S (1984).Changes in rat adrenal catecholamines and proenkephalin metabolism after denervation. PNAS., 81(11):3587-3590.
  2. Barbara A. Barron. 2000. Cardiac Opioids. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, 224:1-7.
  3. Fratta W, Yang HY, Hong J, Costa E (1977). Stability of Met-enkephalin content in brain structures of morphine-dependent or foot shock-stressed rats. Nature, 268(5619):452-453.
  4. Wouters W, Den Bercken JV (1979). Hyperpolarisation and depression of slow synaptic inhibition by enkephalin in frog sympathetic ganglion. Nature, 277:53-54.
  5. Tsanova A, Dacheva D, Penchev V, Georgiev G, Pajpanova T, Golovinski E, Lalchev Z (2009). Comparative study of the interaction between synthetic methionine-enkephalin and monolayers of zwitterionic and negatively charged phospholipids. Biotechnol & Biotechnol., 23:463-466.
  6. Rattner A, Korner M, Rosen H, Baeuerle PA, Citri Y (1991). Nuclear factor Kappa B activates proenkephalin transcription in T lymphocytes. Molecular and Cellular Biology, 11(2):1017-1022.


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