NMDA receptor-mediated activation of medullary pro-nociceptive neurons is required for secondary thermal hyperalgesia

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There is now direct evidence that a class of neurons in the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM) exerts a net facilitatory influence on spinal nociception. The present experiments were designed to test whether activation of these neurons, referred to as “on-cells”, is required as part of a positive feedback loop leading to secondary hyperalgesia in acute inflammation produced by topical application of mustard oil. Activity of a characterized RVM neuron and paw withdrawals to heat (plantar surface) were recorded in barbiturate-anesthetized rats. Following three baseline trials, mustard oil was applied to the skin above the knee. Cell activity and paw withdrawal latencies were monitored for an additional 45 min. Application of mustard oil produced an increase in on-cell discharge that was associated with a substantial decrease in withdrawal latency of the ipsilateral paw. Blocking on-cell activation using local infusion of the NMDA-receptor antagonist AP5 into the RVM prevented hyperalgesia. Secondary thermal hyperalgesia following mustard oil was also associated with a significant decrease in the firing of “off-cells”, a cell population thought to exert a net inhibitory influence on nociception. Depression of off-cell firing was unaffected by AP5 microinjection. The firing of “neutral cells”, which have no documented role in nociceptive modulation, was unchanged following mustard oil and also unaffected by AP5 infusion in the RVM. Brainstem descending controls are receiving increasing attention in efforts to understand hyperalgesia and persistent pain states. The present experiments demonstrate that a novel, NMDA-mediated activation of on-cells is required for secondary thermal hyperalgesia in acute inflammation.

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