Microglial Modulation as a Target for Chronic Pain: From the Bench to the Bedside and Back


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Abstract

With a widespread opioid epidemic and profound biopsychosocial implications, chronic pain is a multifaceted public health issue requiring urgent attention. The treatment of chronic pain is particularly important to anesthesiologists given our unique role as perioperative physicians and pain medicine specialists. The present review details the recent shift from a neuronal theory of chronic pain to one that includes complex neuron–glia interactions. In particular, we highlight microglia, the myeloid-lineage cells of the central nervous system, as initiators of a postinjury neuroimmune response that contributes to the acute to chronic pain transition. We discuss ever-advancing preclinical studies, wherein significant success has been made through pharmacologic and genetic modulation of microglia, and we emphasize where these approaches have made the transition to the clinical realm. Furthermore, we highlight the most current, novel efforts to visualize glial activation in vivo using positron emission tomography and improve the diagnosis of chronic pain through radiotracer binding of specific targets, like the 18 kDa translocator protein in microglia and myeloid-lineage cells. Our rapidly advancing knowledge about microglia and their involvement in pain suggests that the era of glial-targeted therapeutics is just beginning so long as we refocus our attention on optimizing preclinical studies using a clinically informed approach, before translation.

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