Stereological study on the number of synapses in the rat spinal dorsal horn with painful diabetic neuropathy induced by streptozotocin

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Our previous studies showed that direct injury to the sciatic nerve (chronic constriction injury or axotomy) is associated with a numerical increase in synaptic number in the rat spinal dorsal horn. The aim of this study was to determine whether painful diabetic neuropathy (PDN) was also associated with numerical changes in the synaptic or neuronal numbers in the spinal dorsal horn. Overall, 17 adult SD rats were allocated randomly into the control group (n=5) and the streptozotocin (STZ) group (n=12). STZ was injected intraperitoneally to induce diabetes. In the STZ group, seven rats (STZ-H) showed hyperglycemia (fasting blood glucose >11.1 mM) and the rest of the five rats (STZ-N) did not. Rats were fed and observed for 28 days after hyperglycemia. Two of the seven STZ-H rats died of infection during the observation period. Body weight and paw withdraw threshold (PWT) decreased in the rest of the five STZ-H rats. Twenty-eight days after hyperglycemia, the L5 segment of the spinal cord was removed; paraffin-embedded sections were prepared and stained with Nissl’s method and synaptophysin immunohistochemistry, respectively. The optical dissector (a stereological technique) was used to estimate the numbers of neurons and synapses in the spinal dorsal horn. Compared with the control group, the synaptic number and ratio between the numbers of synapses and neurons in the L5 segment of the spinal dorsal horn were increased significantly in the STZ-H rats (P<0.05), whereas the neuronal number did not change significantly (P>0.05). Parameters of STZ-N rats showed no significant changes. In conclusion, PDN, a form of neuropathic pain, is also associated with a synaptic plasticity (numerical increase) in the spinal dorsal horn. This numerical change might be the reason for central sensitization resulting in reduced pain threshold, enhanced responsiveness, and expanded receptive fields associated with PDN. Therefore, our studies indicate that neuropathic pain conditions with different etiologies might show the same synaptic numerical plasticity changes.

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