Morphine: Chemical | Organic composition

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 1:05 pm

Morphine is an alkaloid, the chemical class to which many drugs belong. Pure morphine is a white powder, bitter to the taste. More than 1,000 tons of morphine are isolated from opium a year, although most of it is converted to codeine. Morphine comprises anywhere from 3% to 17% — usually about 10% — of the more than 20 alkaloids present in opium.
The many rings of the morphine molecule include a benzene ring that fits into the receptors for the brain’s own opiates (the endorphins and enkephalins). The nerve cells studded with these receptors recognize the morphine molecule by the close fit of the benzene ring and the binding of a critical nitrogen atom. Many other opioids duplicate these molecular features.
In the 1970s, researchers were able to discover exactly how morphine works in the brain. When stimulated by tiny electric currents, certain nerve tracts within the core of the brain can produce a painkiller strong enough to allow abdominal surgery in lab rodents. The painkiller consists of simple amino acids that, in their naturally folded state, mimic the structure of the morphine molecule. They were named enkephalins, for “in the head,” and endorphins, for “the morphine within.”

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