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J Neurosci. 2001 Jul 15;21(14):5281-8.

Inhibition of neuropathic pain by selective ablation of brainstem medullary cells expressing the mu-opioid receptor.

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  • 1Departments of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85724, USA.


Neurons in the rostroventromedial medulla (RVM) project to spinal loci where the neurons inhibit or facilitate pain transmission. Abnormal activity of facilitatory processes may thus represent a mechanism of chronic pain. This possibility and the phenotype of RVM cells that might underlie experimental neuropathic pain were investigated. Cells expressing mu-opioid receptors were targeted with a single microinjection of saporin conjugated to the mu-opioid agonist dermorphin; unconjugated saporin and dermorphin were used as controls. RVM dermorphin-saporin, but not dermorphin or saporin, significantly decreased cells expressing mu-opioid receptor transcript. RVM dermorphin, saporin, or dermorphin-saporin did not change baseline hindpaw sensitivity to non-noxious or noxious stimuli. Spinal nerve ligation (SNL) injury in rats pretreated with RVM dermorphin-saporin failed to elicit the expected increase in sensitivity to non-noxious mechanical or noxious thermal stimuli applied to the paw. RVM dermorphin or saporin did not alter SNL-induced experimental pain, and no pretreatment affected the responses of sham-operated groups. This protective effect of dermorphin-saporin against SNL-induced pain was blocked by beta-funaltrexamine, a selective mu-opioid receptor antagonist, indicating specific interaction of dermorphin-saporin with the mu-opioid receptor. RVM microinjection of dermorphin-saporin, but not of dermorphin or saporin, in animals previously undergoing SNL showed a time-related reversal of the SNL-induced experimental pain to preinjury baseline levels. Thus, loss of RVM mu receptor-expressing cells both prevents and reverses experimental neuropathic pain. The data support the hypothesis that inappropriate tonic-descending facilitation may underlie some chronic pain states and offer new possibilities for the design of therapeutic strategies.

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