Spinal cord injury (SCI) impairs sensory systems causing chronic allodynia. Mechanisms underlying neuropathic pain have been more extensively studied following peripheral nerve injury than after central trauma. Microglial activation, pro-inflammatory cytokine production and activation of p38 MAP kinase pathways may induce at-level allodynia following PNI. We investigated whether midthoracic SCI elicits similar behavioral and cellular responses below the level of injury (lumbar spinal cord; L5). Importantly, we show that anatomical connections between L5 and supraspinal centers remain intact after moderate SCI allowing direct comparison to a well-established model of peripheral nerve injury. We found that SCI elicits below-level allodynia of similar magnitude to at-level pain caused by a peripheral nerve injury. Moreover, the presence of robust microglial activation in L5 cord predicted allodynia in 86% of rats. Also increased phosphorylation of p38 MAP kinase occurred in the L5 dorsal horn of allodynic rats. For below-level allodynia after SCI, TNF-α and IL-1β increased in the L5 dorsal horn by 7 dpo and returned to baseline by 35 dpo. Interestingly, IL-6 remains at normal levels early after SCI and increases at chronic time points. Increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines also occurred in the thalamus after SCI-induced allodynia. These data suggest that remote microglial activation is pivotal in the development and maintenance of below-level allodynia after SCI. Fractalkine, a known activator of microglia, and astrocytes were not primary modulators of below-level pain. Although the mechanisms of remote microglial activation are unknown, this response may be a viable target for limiting or preventing neuropathic pain after SCI in humans.
Keywords: allodynia, p38, fractalkine, astrocytes, peripheral nerve injury