Metaplasticity within the spinal cord: Evidence brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and alterations in GABA function (ionic plasticity) modulate pain and the capacity to learn

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HIGHLIGHTSNeurons within the spinal cord are sensitive to environmental relations.Relational learning impacts plastic potential (behavioral metaplasticity).Plastic potential is regulated by BDNF, TNF, and GABA (ionic plasticity).Spinal cord injury lowers membrane-bound KCC2, which reduces GABAergic inhibition.Released from inhibition, noxious input can sensitize pain circuits.Evidence is reviewed that behavioral training and neural injury can engage metaplastic processes that regulate adaptive potential. This issue is explored within a model system that examines how training affects the capacity to learn within the lower (lumbosacral) spinal cord. Response-contingent (controllable) stimulation applied caudal to a spinal transection induces a behavioral modification indicative of learning. This behavioral change is not observed in animals that receive stimulation in an uncontrollable manner. Exposure to uncontrollable stimulation also engages a process that disables spinal learning for 24–48h. Controllable stimulation has the opposite effect; it engages a process that enables learning and prevents/reverses the learning deficit induced by uncontrollable stimulation. These observations suggest that a learning episode can impact the capacity to learn in future situations, providing an example of behavioral metaplasticity. The protective/restorative effect of controllable stimulation has been linked to an up-regulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The disruption of learning has been linked to the sensitization of pain (nociceptive) circuits, which is enabled by a reduction in GABA-dependent inhibition. After spinal cord injury (SCI), the co-transporter (KCC2) that regulates the outward flow of Cl is down-regulated. This causes the intracellular concentration of Cl to increase, reducing (and potentially reversing) the inward flow of Cl through the GABA-A receptor. The shift in GABA function (ionic plasticity) increases neural excitability caudal to injury and sets the stage for nociceptive sensitization. The injury-induced shift in KCC2 is related to the loss of descending serotonergic (5HT) fibers that regulate plasticity within the spinal cord dorsal horn through the 5HT-1A receptor. Evidence is presented that these alterations in spinal plasticity impact pain in a brain-dependent task (place conditioning). The findings suggest that ionic plasticity can affect learning potential, shifting a neural circuit from dampened/hard-wired to excitable/plastic.

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