The opioid system regulates affective processing, including pain, pleasure, and reward. Restricting the role of this system to hedonic modulation may be an underestimation, however. Opioid receptors are distributed widely in the human brain, including the more “cognitive” regions in the frontal and parietal lobes. Nonhuman animal research points to opioid modulation of cognitive and decision-making processes. We review emerging evidence on whether acute opioid drug modulation in healthy humans can influence cognitive function, such as how we choose between actions of different values and how we control our behavior in the face of distracting information. Specifically, we review studies employing opioid agonists or antagonists together with experimental paradigms of reward-based decision making, impulsivity, executive functioning, attention, inhibition, and effort. Although this field is still in its infancy, the emerging picture suggests that the mu-opioid system can influence higher-level cognitive function via modulation of valuation, motivation, and control circuits dense in mu-opioid receptors, including orbitofrontal cortex, basal ganglia, amygdalae, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex. The framework that we put forward proposes that opioids influence decision making and cognitive control by increasing the subjective value of reward and reducing aversive arousal. We highlight potential mechanisms that might underlie the effects of mu-opioid signaling on decision making and cognitive control and provide directions for future research.
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