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J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2016 Aug;138(2):500-508.e24. doi: 10.1016/j.jaci.2016.02.020. Epub 2016 Apr 6.

The pruritus- and TH2-associated cytokine IL-31 promotes growth of sensory nerves.

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Department of Dermatology, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany.
ZymoGenetics (a Bristol-Myers Squibb Company), Seattle, Wash.
Department of Biosciences and Nutrition, Karolinska Institutet, Huddinge, Sweden.
Department of Informatics, King's College London, London, United Kingdom.
Physiology and Biophysics, University of California, Irvine, Calif.
Department of Neurophysiology, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, Neurology, Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Department of Dermatology, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany; Department of Dermatology and UCD Charles Institute for Translational Dermatology, Dublin, Ireland.
Department of Dermatology, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany. Electronic address:



Pruritus is a cardinal symptom of atopic dermatitis, and an increased cutaneous sensory network is thought to contribute to pruritus. Although the immune cell-IL-31-neuron axis has been implicated in severe pruritus during atopic skin inflammation, IL-31's neuropoietic potential remains elusive.


We sought to analyze the IL-31-related transcriptome in sensory neurons and to investigate whether IL-31 promotes sensory nerve fiber outgrowth.


In vitro primary sensory neuron culture systems were subjected to whole-transcriptome sequencing, ingenuity pathway analysis, immunofluorescence, and nerve elongation, as well as branching assays after IL-31 stimulation. In vivo we investigated the cutaneous sensory neuronal network in wild-type, Il31-transgenic, and IL-31 pump-equipped mice.


Transgenic Il31 overexpression and subcutaneously delivered IL-31 induced an increase in the cutaneous nerve fiber density in lesional skin in vivo. Transcriptional profiling of IL-31-activated dorsal root ganglia neurons revealed enrichment for genes promoting nervous system development and neuronal outgrowth and negatively regulating cell death. Moreover, the growth cones of primary small-diameter dorsal root ganglia neurons showed abundant IL-31 receptor α expression. Indeed, IL-31 selectively promoted nerve fiber extension only in small-diameter neurons. Signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 phosphorylation mediated IL-31-induced neuronal outgrowth, and pharmacologic inhibition of signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 completely abolished this effect. In contrast, transient receptor potential cation channel vanilloid subtype 1 channels were dispensable for IL-31-induced neuronal sprouting.


The pruritus- and TH2-associated novel cytokine IL-31 induces a distinct transcriptional program in sensory neurons, leading to nerve elongation and branching both in vitro and in vivo. This finding might help us understand the clinical observation that patients with atopic dermatitis experience increased sensitivity to minimal stimuli inducing sustained itch.


IL-31; IL-31 receptor α; atopic dermatitis; cutaneous hyperinnervation; dorsal root ganglia; nerve growth

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