Chronic sleep restriction increases pain sensitivity over time in a periaqueductal gray and nucleus accumbens dependent manner

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Painful conditions and sleep disturbances are major public health problems worldwide and one directly affects the other. Sleep loss increases pain prevalence and severity; while pain disturbs sleep. However, the underlying mechanisms are largely unknown. Here we asked whether chronic sleep restriction for 6h daily progressively increases pain sensitivity and if this increase is reversed after two days of free sleep. Also, whether the pronociceptive effect of chronic sleep restriction depends on the periaqueductal grey and on the nucleus accumbens, two key regions involved in the modulation of pain and sleep-wake cycle. We showed that sleep restriction induces a pronociceptive effect characterized by a significant decrease in the mechanical paw withdrawal threshold in rats. Such effect increases progressively from day 3 to day 12 remaining stable thereafter until day 26. Two consecutive days of free sleep were not enough to reverse the effect, not even to attenuate it. This pronociceptive effect depends on the periaqueductal grey and on the nucleus accumbens, since it was prevented by their excitotoxic lesion. Complementarily, chronic sleep restriction significantly increased c-Fos protein expression within the periaqueductal grey and the nucleus accumbens and this correlates with the intensity of the pronociceptive effect, suggesting that the greater the neural activity in this regions, the greater the effect. These findings may contribute not only to understand why painful conditions are more prevalent and severe among people who sleep poorly, but also to develop therapeutic strategies to prevent this, increasing the effectiveness of pain management in this population.

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