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Pain. 2015 Jul;156(7):1240-6. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000172.

A central role for spinal dorsal horn neurons that express neurokinin-1 receptors in chronic itch.

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aDepartment of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, University of California, Davis, CA, USA bDepartment of Dermatology, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Temple Itch Center, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.


We investigated roles for spinal neurons expressing the neurokinin-1 receptor (NK1R) and/or gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) in a mouse model of ovalbumin (OVA)-induced chronic atopic dermatitis. Mice receiving repeated topical application of OVA exhibited atopic-like skin lesions and behavioral signs of chronic itch including spontaneous scratching, touch-evoked scratching (alloknesis), and enhancement of chloroquine-evoked scratching (hyperknesis). Substance P-saporin (SP-SAP) and bombesin-saporin (BB-SAP) were intrathecally injected into OVA-sensitized mice to neurotoxically ablate NK1R- or GRPR-expressing spinal neurons, respectively. SP-SAP diminished the expression of NK1R in the superficial spinal dorsal horn and significantly attenuated all behavioral signs of chronic itch. BB-SAP reduced the spinal dorsal horn expression of GRPR and significantly attenuated hyperknesis, with no effect on spontaneous scratching or alloknesis. To investigate whether NK1R-expressing spinal neurons project in ascending somatosensory pathways, we performed a double-label study. The retrograde tracer, Fluorogold (FG), was injected into either the somatosensory thalamus or lateral parabrachial nucleus. In the upper cervical (C1-2) spinal cord, most neurons retrogradely labeled with FG were located in the dorsomedial aspect of the superficial dorsal horn. Of FG-labeled spinal neurons, 89% to 94% were double labeled for NK1R. These results indicate that NK1R-expressing spinal neurons play a major role in the expression of symptoms of chronic itch and give rise to ascending somatosensory projections. Gastrin-releasing peptide receptor-expressing spinal neurons contribute to hyperknesis but not to alloknesis or ongoing itch. NK1R-expressing spinal neurons represent a potential target to treat chronic itch.

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