Using pharmacological and genetic methods, we show that inhibition of mTORC1 induces sensory neuron hyperexcitability and pain via feedback activation of ERK.
Mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) inhibitors are extensively used as immunosuppressants to prevent transplant rejection and in treatment of certain cancers. In patients, chronic treatment with rapamycin or its analogues (rapalogues) has been reported to lead to sensory hypersensitivity and pain conditions via an unknown mechanism. Here, we show that pharmacological or genetic inhibition of mTORC1 activates the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway in sensory neurons via suppression of S6K1 to insulin receptor substrate 1 negative feedback loop. As a result, increased ERK activity induces sensory neuron sensitization, mechanical hypersensitivity, and spontaneous pain. The clinically available adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase activator, metformin, which is an antidiabetic drug, prevents rapamycin-induced ERK activation and the development of mechanical hypersensitivity and spontaneous pain. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that activation of the ERK pathway in sensory neurons as a consequence of mTORC1 inhibition leads to the development of pain. Importantly, this effect is abolished by co-treatment with metformin, thus providing a potential treatment option for rapalogue-evoked pain. Our findings highlight the physiological relevance of feedback signaling through mTORC1 inhibition and have important implications for development of pain therapeutics that target the mTOR pathway.