researchers at The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland report they have pinpointed two molecules involved in perpetuating chronic pain in mice. The molecules, they say, also appear to have a role in the phenomenon that causes uninjured areas of the body to be more sensitive to pain when an area nearby has been hurt.
“We found that persistent pain doesn’t always originate in the brain, as some had believed, which is important information for designing less addictive drugs to fight it.”
In their new research, the scientists focused on a system of pain-sensing nerves within the faces of mice, known collectively as the trigeminal nerve.
The trigeminal nerve is a large bundle of tens of thousands of nerve cells. Each cell is a long “wire” with a hub at its center; the hubs are grouped together into a larger hub. On one side of this hub, three smaller bundles of wires — V1, V2 and V3 — branch off. Each bundle contains individual pain-sensing wires that split off to cover a specific territory of the face.
Dong’s team inserted a gene into the DNA of mice so that the primary sensory nerve cells would glow green when activated.
the researchers found that more nerve branches coming from a pinched V2 nerve lit up than those coming from an uninjured one. This suggests that nerves that don’t normally respond to pain can modify themselves during prolonged injury, adding to the pain signals being sent to the brain.
Knowing from previous studies that the protein TRPV1 is needed to activate pain-sensing nerve cells, the researchers next looked at its activity in the trigeminal nerve. They showed it was hyperactive in injured V2 nerve branches and in uninjured V3 branches, as well as in the branches that extended beyond the hub of the trigeminal nerve cell and into the spinal cord.
experts in the neurological signaling molecule serotonin, aware that serotonin is involved in chronic pain, investigated its role in the TRPV1 activation study. The team, led by Feng Wei, M.D., Ph.D., blocked the production of serotonin, which is released from the brain stem into the spinal cord, and found that TRPV1 hyperactivity nearly disappeared.
“Chronic pain seems to cause serotonin to be released by the brain into the spinal cord. There, it acts on the trigeminal nerve at large, making TRPV1 hyperactive throughout its branches, even causing some non-pain-sensing nerve cells to start responding to pain. Hyperactive TRPV1 causes the nerves to fire more frequently, sending additional pain signals to the brain.”