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Nociceptors and Chronic Pain  

Edgar T. Walters

Chronic pain lasting months or longer is very common, poorly treated, and sometimes devastating. Nociceptors are sensory neurons that usually are silent unless activated by tissue damage or inflammation. In humans their peripheral activation evokes conscious pain, and their spontaneous activity is highly correlated with spontaneous pain. Persistently hyperactive nociceptors mediate increased responses to normally painful stimuli (hyperalgesia) in chronic conditions and promote the sensitization of central pain pathways that allows low-threshold mechanoreceptors to elicit painful responses to innocuous stimuli (allodynia). Investigations of rodent models of neuropathic pain and hyperalgesic priming have revealed many alterations in nociceptors and associated cells that are implicated in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. These include chronic nociceptor hyperexcitability and spontaneous activity, sprouting, synaptic plasticity, changes in intracellular signaling, and modified responses to opioids, along with alterations in the expression and translation of thousands of genes in nociceptors and closely linked cells.


Role of Sex Hormones on Pain  

Dayna L. Averitt, Rebecca S. Hornung, and Anne Z. Murphy

The modulatory influence of sex hormones on acute pain, chronic pain disorders, and pain management has been reported for over seven decades. The effect of hormones on pain is clearly evidenced by the multitude of chronic pain disorders that are more common in women, such as headache and migraine, temporomandibular joint disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. Several of these pain disorders also fluctuate in pain intensity over the menstrual cycle, including headache and migraine and temporomandibular joint disorder. The sex steroid hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone) as well as some peptide hormones (prolactin, oxytocin, and vasopressin) have been linked to pain by both clinical and preclinical research. Progesterone and testosterone are widely accepted as having protective effects against pain, while the literature on estrogen reports both exacerbation and attenuation of pain. Prolactin is reported to trigger pain, while oxytocin and vasopressin have analgesic properties in both sexes. Only in the last two decades have neuroscientists begun to unravel the complex anatomical and molecular mechanisms underlying the direct effects of sex hormones and mechanisms have been reported in both the central and peripheral nervous systems. Mechanisms include directly or indirectly targeting receptors and ion channels on sensory neurons, activating pain excitatory or pain inhibitory centers in the brain, and reducing inflammatory mediators. Despite recent progress, there remains significant controversy and challenges in the field and the seemingly pleiotropic role estrogen plays on pain remains ambiguous. Current knowledge of the effects of sex hormones on pain has led to the burgeoning of gender-based medicine, and gaining further insight will lead to much needed improvement in pain management in women.


Pain and Its Modulation  

Asaf Keller

Sensory perceptions are inherently subjective, being influenced by factors such as expectation, attention, affect, and past experiences. Nowhere is this more commonly experienced than with the perception of pain, whose perceived intensity and emotional impact can fluctuate rapidly. The perception of pain in response to the same nociceptive signal can also vary substantially between individuals. Pain is not only a sensory experience. It also involves profound affective and cognitive dimensions, reflecting the activation of and interactions among multiple brain regions. The modulation of pain perception by such interactions has been most extensively characterized in the context of the “descending pain modulatory system.” This system includes a variety of pathways that directly or indirectly modulate the activity of neurons in the spinal dorsal horn, the second-order neurons that receive inputs directly from nociceptors. Less understood are the interactions among brain regions that modulate the affective and cognitive aspects of pain perception. Emerging data suggest that certain pain conditions result from dysfunction in pain modulation, suggesting that targeting these dysfunctions might have therapeutic value. Some therapies that are thought to target pain modulation pathways—such as cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and placebo analgesia—are safer and less expensive than pharmacologic or surgical approaches, further emphasizing the importance of understanding these modulatory mechanisms. Understanding the mechanisms through which pain modulation functions may also illuminate fundamental mechanisms of perception and consciousness.


Neural Processing of Pain and Itch  

Taylor Follansbee, Mirela Iodi Carstens, and E. Carstens

Pain is defined as “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage,” while itch can be defined as “an unpleasant sensation that evokes the desire to scratch.” These sensations are normally elicited by noxious or pruritic stimuli that excite peripheral sensory neurons connected to spinal circuits and ascending pathways involved in sensory discrimination, emotional aversiveness, and respective motor responses. Specialized molecular receptors expressed by cutaneous nerve endings transduce stimuli into action potentials conducted by C- and Aδ-fiber nociceptors and pruriceptors into the outer lamina of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Here, neurons selectively activated by nociceptors, or by convergent input from nociceptors, pruriceptors, and often mechanoreceptors, transmit signals to ascending spinothalamic and spinoparabrachial pathways. The spinal circuitry for itch requires interneurons expressing gastrin-releasing peptide and its receptor, while spinal pain circuitry involves other excitatory neuropeptides; both itch and pain are transmitted by ascending pathways that express the receptor for substance P. Spinal itch- and pain-transmitting circuitry is segmentally modulated by inhibitory interneurons expressing dynorphin, GABA, and glycine, which mediate the antinociceptive and antipruritic effects of noxious counterstimulation. Spinal circuits are also under descending modulation from the brainstem rostral ventromedial medulla. Opioids like morphine inhibit spinal pain-transmitting circuits segmentally and via descending inhibitory pathways, while having the opposite effect on itch. The supraspinal targets of ascending pain and itch pathways exhibit extensive overlap and include the somatosensory thalamus, parabrachial nucleus, amygdala, periaqueductal gray, and somatosensory, anterior cingulate, insular, and supplementary motor cortical areas. Following tissue injury, enhanced pain is evoked near the injury (primary hyperalgesia) due to release of inflammatory mediators that sensitize nociceptors. Within a larger surrounding area of secondary hyperalgesia, innocuous mechanical stimuli elicit pain (allodynia) due to central sensitization of pain pathways. Pruriceptors can also become sensitized in pathophysiological conditions, such as dermatitis. Under chronic itch conditions, low-threshold tactile stimulation can elicit itch (alloknesis), presumably due to central sensitization of itch pathways, although this has not been extensively studied. There is considerable overlap in pain- and itch-signaling pathways and it remains unclear how these sensations are discriminated. Specificity theory states that itch and pain are separate sensations with their own distinct pathways (“labeled lines”). Selectivity theory is similar but incorporates the observation that pruriceptive neurons are also excited by algogenic stimuli that inhibit spinal itch transmission. In contrast, intensity theory states that itch is signaled by low firing rates, and pain by high firing rates, in a common sensory pathway. Finally, the spatial contrast theory proposes that itch is elicited by focal activation of a few nociceptors while activation of more nociceptors over a larger area elicits pain. There is evidence supporting each theory, and it remains to be determined how the nervous system distinguishes between pain and itch.


BDNF-Induced Plasticity of Spinal Circuits Underlying Pain and Learning  

Sandra M. Garraway

Understanding of the various types of plasticity that occur in the spinal cord, as well as understanding of spinal cord functions, has vastly improved over the past 50 years, mainly due to an increase in the number of research studies and review articles on the subject. It is now understood that the spinal cord is not merely a passive conduit of neural impulses. Instead, the spinal cord can independently execute complex functions. Numerous experimental approaches have been utilized for more targeted exploration of spinal cord functions. For example, isolating the spinal cord from supraspinal influences has been used to demonstrate that simple forms of learning can be performed by spinal neuronal networks. Moreover, reduced preparations, such as acute spinal cord slices, have been used to show that spinal neurons undergo different types of modulation, including activity-dependent synaptic modification. Most spinal cord processes, ranging from integration of incoming sensory input to execution of locomotor outputs, involve plasticity. Nociceptive processing that leads to pain and spinal learning is an example of plasticity that is well-studied in the spinal cord. At the neural level, both processes involve an interplay of cellular mediators, which include glutamate receptors, protein kinases, and growth factors. The neurotrophin brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has also been implicated in these processes, specifically as a promoter of both pro-nociception and spinal learning mechanisms. Interestingly, the role of BDNF in mediating spinal plasticity can be altered by injury. The literature spanning approximately 5 decades is reviewed and the role of BDNF is discussed in mediating cellular plasticity underlying pain processing and learning within the spinal cord.


The Sensory World of the Naked Mole-Rat  

Thomas J. Park

Naked mole-rats are subterranean mammals that are native to equatorial east Africa including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. They are unusual among subterranean mammals in that they live in very large colonies where many respiring animals deplete oxygen and overproduce carbon dioxide. Some of their sensory traits, such as poor vision and hearing, are considered typical of subterranean mammals. However, naked mole-rats display three sensory traits that are unusual even among subterranean mammals. First, they possess a sensitive sensory array of body vibrissae on their otherwise furless bodies. Second, they have a greatly reduced sense of inflammatory and chemical pain, but express acute mechanical and thermal pain. Third, naked mole-rats, and likely other African mole-rat species, are the only rodents known that show no postbirth growth of the vomeronasal organ, an organ associated with sensing pheromones. These sensory traits, along with extreme tolerance to hypoxia and resistance to cancer, make the naked mole-rat an important animal model for studying sensory systems as well as in multiple other scientific fields.


Phantom Limbs and Brain Plasticity in Amputees  

Tamar Makin and London Plasticity Lab

Phantom sensations are experienced by almost every person who has lost their hand in adulthood. This mysterious phenomenon spans the full range of bodily sensations, including the sense of touch, temperature, movement, and even the sense of wetness. For a majority of upper-limb amputees, these sensations will also be at times unpleasant, painful, and for some even excruciating to the point of debilitating, causing a serious clinical problem, termed phantom limb pain (PLP). Considering the sensory organs (the receptors in the skin, muscle or tendon) are physically missing, in order to understand the origins of phantom sensations and pain the potential causes must be studied at the level of the nervous system, and the brain in particular. This raises the question of what happens to a fully developed part of the brain that becomes functionally redundant (e.g. the sensorimotor hand area after arm amputation). Relatedly, what happens to the brain representation of a body part that becomes overused (e.g. the intact hand, on which most amputees heavily rely for completing daily tasks)? Classical studies in animals show that the brain territory in primary somatosensory cortex (S1) that was “freed up” due to input loss (hereafter deprivation) becomes activated by other body part representations, those neighboring the deprived cortex. If neural resources in the deprived hand area get redistributed to facilitate the representation of other body parts following amputation, how does this process relate to persistent phantom sensation arising from the amputated hand? Subsequent work in humans, mostly with noninvasive neuroimaging and brain stimulation techniques, have expanded on the initial observations of cortical remapping in two important ways. First, research with humans allows us to study the perceptual consequence of remapping, particularly with regards to phantom sensations and pain. Second, by considering the various compensatory strategies amputees adopt in order to account for their disability, including overuse of their intact hand and learning to use an artificial limb, use-dependent plasticity can also be studied in amputees, as well as its relationship to deprivation-triggered plasticity. Both of these topics are of great clinical value, as these could inform clinicians how to treat PLP, and how to facilitate rehabilitation and prosthesis usage in particular. Moreover, research in humans provides new insight into the role of remapping and persistent representation in facilitating (or hindering) the realization of emerging technologies for artificial limb devices, with special emphasis on the role of embodiment. Together, this research affords a more comprehensive outlook at the functional consequences of cortical remapping in amputees’ primary sensorimotor cortex.


Neuroinflammation and Neuroplasticity in Pain  

Jürgen Sandkühler

Much progress has been made in unraveling the mechanisms that underlie the transition from acute to chronic pain. Traditional beliefs are being replaced by novel, more powerful concepts that consider the mutual interplay of neuronal and non-neuronal cells in the nervous system during the pathogenesis of chronic pain. The new focus is on the role of neuroinflammation for neuroplasticity in nociceptive pathways and for the generation, amplification, and mislocation of pain. The latest insights are reviewed here and provide a basis for understanding the interdependence of chronic pain and its comorbidities. The new concepts will guide the search for future therapies to prevent and reverse chronic pain. Long-term changes in the properties and functions of nerve cells, including changes in synaptic strength, membrane excitability, and the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitters, can result from a wide variety of conditions. In the nociceptive system, painful stimuli, peripheral inflammation, nerve injuries, the use of or withdrawal from opioids—all can lead to enhanced pain sensitivity, to the generation of pain, and/or to the spread of pain to unaffected sites of the body. Non-neuronal cells, especially microglia and astrocytes, contribute to changes in nociceptive processing. Recent studies revealed not only that glial cells support neuroplasticity but also that their activation can trigger long-term changes in the nociceptive system.


Achieving Adaptive Plasticity in the Spinal Cord  

James W. Grau

The traditional view of central nervous system function presumed that learning is the province of the brain. From this perspective, the spinal cord functions primarily as a conduit for incoming/outgoing neural impulses, capable of organizing simple reflexes but incapable of learning. Research has challenged this view, demonstrating that neurons within the spinal cord, isolated from the brain by means of a spinal cut (transection), can encode environmental relations and that this experience can have a lasting effect on function. The exploration of this issue has been informed by work in the learning literature that establishes the behavioral criteria and work within the pain literature that has shed light on the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Studies have shown that spinal systems can exhibit single stimulus learning (habituation and sensitization) and are sensitive to both stimulus–stimulus (Pavlovian) and response–outcome (instrumental) relations. Regular environmental relations can both bring about an alteration in the performance of a spinally mediated response and impact the capacity to learn in future situations. The latter represents a form of behavioral metaplasticity. At the neurobiological level, neurons within the central gray matter of the spinal cord induce lasting alterations by engaging the NMDA receptor and signal pathways implicated in brain-dependent learning and memory. Of particular clinical importance, uncontrollable/unpredictable pain (nociceptive) input can induce a form of neural over-excitation within the dorsal horn (central sensitization) that impairs adaptive learning. Pain input after a contusion injury can increase tissue loss and undermines long-term recovery.