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1.  Chronic itch development in sensory neurons requires BRAF signaling pathways 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2013;123(11):4769-4780.
Chronic itch, or pruritus, is associated with a wide range of skin abnormalities. The mechanisms responsible for chronic itch induction and persistence remain unclear. We developed a mouse model in which a constitutively active form of the serine/threonine kinase BRAF was expressed in neurons gated by the sodium channel Nav1.8 (BRAFNav1.8 mice). We found that constitutive BRAF pathway activation in BRAFNav1.8 mice results in ectopic and enhanced expression of a cohort of itch-sensing genes, including gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) and MAS-related GPCR member A3 (MRGPRA3), in nociceptors expressing transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1). BRAFNav1.8 mice showed de novo neuronal responsiveness to pruritogens, enhanced pruriceptor excitability, and heightened evoked and spontaneous scratching behavior. GRP receptor expression was increased in the spinal cord, indicating augmented coding capacity for itch subsequent to amplified pruriceptive inputs. Enhanced GRP expression and sustained ERK phosphorylation were observed in sensory neurons of mice with allergic contact dermatitis– or dry skin–elicited itch; however, spinal ERK activation was not required for maintaining central sensitization of itch. Inhibition of either BRAF or GRP signaling attenuated itch sensation in chronic itch mouse models. These data uncover RAF/MEK/ERK signaling as a key regulator that confers a subset of nociceptors with pruriceptive properties to initiate and maintain long-lasting itch sensation.
PMCID: PMC3809799  PMID: 24216512
2.  New insights into the mechanisms of itch: are pain and itch controlled by distinct mechanisms? 
Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology  2013;465(12):10.1007/s00424-013-1284-2.
Itch and pain are closely related but distinct sensations. They share largely overlapping mediators and receptors, and itch-responding neurons are also sensitive to pain stimuli. Itch-mediating primary sensory neurons are equipped with distinct receptors and ion channels for itch transduction, including Mas-related G protein-coupled receptors (Mrgprs), protease-activated receptors (PARs), histamine receptors, bile acid receptor (TGR5), toll-like receptors (TLRs), and transient receptor potential subfamily V1/A1 (TRPV1/A1). Recent progress has indicated the existence of an itch-specific neuronal circuitry. The MrgprA3-expressing primary sensory neurons exclusively innervate the epidermis of skin and their central axons connect with gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR)-expressing neurons in the superficial spinal cord. Notably, ablation of MrgprA3-expressing primary sensory neurons or GRPR-expressing spinal cord neurons results in selective reduction in itch but not pain. Chronic itch results from dysfunction of the immune and nervous system and can manifest as neural plasticity, despite the fact that chronic itch is often treated by dermatologists. While differences between acute pain and acute itch are striking, chronic itch and chronic pain share many similar mechanisms, including peripheral sensitization (increased responses of primary sensory neurons to itch and pain mediators), central sensitization (hyperactivity of spinal projection neurons and excitatory interneurons), loss of inhibitory control in the spinal cord, and neuro-immune and neuro-glial interactions. Notably, painful stimuli can elicit itch in some chronic conditions (e.g., atopic dermatitis) and some drugs for treating chronic pain are also effective in chronic itch. Thus, itch and pain have more similarities in pathological and chronic conditions.
PMCID: PMC3796138  PMID: 23636773
Central sensitization; neuro-immune interaction; nociceptor; peripheral sensitization; pruritus; pruriceptor
3.  TLR4 enhances histamine-mediated pruritus by potentiating TRPV1 activity 
Molecular Brain  2014;7:59.
Recent studies have indicated that Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), a pathogen-recognition receptor that triggers inflammatory signals in innate immune cells, is also expressed on sensory neurons, implicating its putative role in sensory signal transmission. However, the possible function of sensory neuron TLR4 has not yet been formally addressed. In this regard, we investigated the role of TLR4 in itch signal transmission.
TLR4 was expressed on a subpopulation of dorsal root ganglia (DRG) sensory neurons that express TRPV1. In TLR4-knockout mice, histamine-induced itch responses were compromised while TLR4 activation by LPS did not directly elicit an itch response. Histamine-induced intracellular calcium signals and inward currents were comparably reduced in TLR4-deficient sensory neurons. Reduced histamine sensitivity in the TLR4-deficient neurons was accompanied by a decrease in TRPV1 activity. Heterologous expression experiments in HEK293T cells indicated that TLR4 expression enhanced capsaicin-induced intracellular calcium signals and inward currents.
Our data show that TLR4 on sensory neurons enhances histamine-induced itch signal transduction by potentiating TRPV1 activity. The results suggest that TLR4 could be a novel target for the treatment of enhanced itch sensation.
PMCID: PMC4237911  PMID: 25139109
Toll-like receptor; Itch; Sensory neurons
4.  Neuroexcitatory effects of morphine-3-glucuronide are dependent on Toll-like receptor 4 signaling 
Multiple adverse events are associated with the use of morphine for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain, including opioid-induced hyperalgesia (OIH). Mechanisms of OIH are independent of opioid tolerance and may involve the morphine metabolite morphine-3-glucuronide (M3G). M3G exhibits limited affinity for opioid receptors and no analgesic effect. Previous reports suggest that M3G can act via the Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4)/myeloid differentiation protein-2 (MD-2) heterodimer in the central nervous system to elicit pain.
Immunoblot and immunocytochemistry methods were used to characterize the protein expression of TLR4 present in lumbar dorsal root ganglion (DRG). Using in vitro intracellular calcium and current clamp techniques, we determined whether TLR4 activation as elicited by the prototypical agonists of TLR4, lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and M3G, contributed to changes in intracellular calcium and increased excitation. Rodents were also injected with M3G to determine the degree to which M3G-induced tactile hyperalgesia could be diminished using either a small molecule inhibitor of the MD-2/TLR4 complex in rats or TLR4 knockout mice. Whole cell voltage-clamp recordings were made from small- and medium-diameter DRG neurons (25 μm < DRG diameter <45 μm) for both control and M3G-treated neurons to determine the potential influence on voltage-gated sodium channels (NaVs).
We observed that TLR4 immunoreactivity was present in peptidergic and non-peptidergic sensory neurons in the DRG. Non-neuronal cells in the DRG lacked evidence of TLR4 expression. Approximately 15% of assayed small- and medium-diameter sensory neurons exhibited a change in intracellular calcium following LPS administration. Both nociceptive and non-nociceptive neurons were observed to respond, and approximately 40% of these cells were capsaicin-insensitive. Increased excitability observed in sensory neurons following LPS or M3G could be eliminated using Compound 15, a small molecule inhibitor of the TLR4/MD-2 complex. Likewise, systemic injection of M3G induced rapid tactile, but not thermal, nociceptive behavioral changes in the rat, which were prevented by pre-treating animals with Compound 15. Unlike TLR4 wild-type mice, TLR4 knockout mice did not exhibit M3G-induced hyperalgesia. As abnormal pain sensitivity is often associated with NaVs, we predicted that M3G acting via the MD-2/TLR4 complex may affect the density and gating of NaVs in sensory neurons. We show that M3G increases tetrodotoxin-sensitive and tetrodotoxin-resistant (NaV1.9) current densities.
These outcomes provide evidence that M3G may play a role in OIH via the TLR4/MD-2 heterodimer complex and biophysical properties of tetrodotoxin-sensitive and tetrodotoxin-resistant NaV currents.
PMCID: PMC3519737  PMID: 22898544
5.  Emerging role of toll-like receptors in the control of pain and itch 
Neuroscience Bulletin  2012;28(2):131-144.
Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are germline-encoded pattern-recognition receptors (PRRs) to initiate innate immune responses by recognizing molecular structures shared by a wide range of pathogens, known as pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs). After tissue injury or cellular stress, TLRs can also detect endogenous ligands known as danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs). TLRs are expressed in various cell types in the central nervous system (CNS), including non-neuronal and neuronal cells, and contribute to both infectious and non-infectious disorders in the CNS. Following tissue insult and nerve injury, TLRs (such as TLR2, 3, and 4) induce the activation of microglia and astrocytes and the production of the proinflammatory cytokines in the spinal cord, leading to the development and maintenance of inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain. In particular, primary sensory neurons, such as nociceptors express TLRs (e.g., TLR4 and TLR7) to sense exogenous PAMPs and endogenous DAMPs released after tissue injury and cellular stress. These neuronal TLRs are new players in the processing of pain and itch by increasing the excitability of primary sensory neurons. Given the prevalence of chronic pain and itch and the suffering of the affected people, insights into TLR signaling in nervous system will open a new avenue for the management of clinical pain and itch.
PMCID: PMC3347759  PMID: 22466124
astrocytes; microglia; Toll-like receptor; Pain; itch; danger-associated molecular patterns (DAMPs); pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs)
6.  The TGR5 receptor mediates bile acid–induced itch and analgesia 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2013;123(4):1513-1530.
Patients with cholestatic disease exhibit pruritus and analgesia, but the mechanisms underlying these symptoms are unknown. We report that bile acids, which are elevated in the circulation and tissues during cholestasis, cause itch and analgesia by activating the GPCR TGR5. TGR5 was detected in peptidergic neurons of mouse dorsal root ganglia and spinal cord that transmit itch and pain, and in dermal macrophages that contain opioids. Bile acids and a TGR5-selective agonist induced hyperexcitability of dorsal root ganglia neurons and stimulated the release of the itch and analgesia transmitters gastrin-releasing peptide and leucine-enkephalin. Intradermal injection of bile acids and a TGR5-selective agonist stimulated scratching behavior by gastrin-releasing peptide– and opioid-dependent mechanisms in mice. Scratching was attenuated in Tgr5-KO mice but exacerbated in Tgr5-Tg mice (overexpressing mouse TGR5), which exhibited spontaneous pruritus. Intraplantar and intrathecal injection of bile acids caused analgesia to mechanical stimulation of the paw by an opioid-dependent mechanism. Both peripheral and central mechanisms of analgesia were absent from Tgr5-KO mice. Thus, bile acids activate TGR5 on sensory nerves, stimulating the release of neuropeptides in the spinal cord that transmit itch and analgesia. These mechanisms could contribute to pruritus and painless jaundice that occur during cholestatic liver diseases.
PMCID: PMC3613908  PMID: 23524965
7.  B-type natriuretic peptide is neither itch-specific nor functions upstream of the GRP-GRPR signaling pathway 
Molecular Pain  2014;10:4.
A recent study by Mishra and Hoon identified B-type natriuretic peptide (BNP) as an important peptide for itch transmission and proposed that BNP activates spinal natriuretic peptide receptor-A (NPRA) expressing neurons, which release gastrin releasing peptide (GRP) to activate GRP receptor (GRPR) expressing neurons to relay itch information from the periphery to the brain (Science 340:968–971, 2013). A central premise for the validity of this novel pathway is the absence of GRP in the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. To this end, they showed that Grp mRNA in DRG neurons is either absent or barely detectable and claimed that BNP but not GRP is a major neurotransmitter for itch in pruriceptors. They showed that NPRA immunostaining is perfectly co-localized with Grp-eGFP in the spinal cord, and a few acute pain behaviors in Nppb -/- mice were tested. They claimed that BNP is an itch-selective peptide that acts as the first station of a dedicated neuronal pathway comprising a GRP-GRPR cascade for itch. However, our studies, along with the others, do not support their claims.
We were unable to reproduce the immunostaining of BNP and NPRA as shown by Mishra and Hoon. By contrast, we were able to detect Grp mRNA in DRGs using in situ hybridization and real time RT-PCR. We show that the expression pattern of Grp mRNA is comparable to that of GRP protein in DRGs. Pharmacological and genetic blockade of GRP-GRPR signaling does not significantly affect intrathecal BNP-induced scratching behavior. We show that BNP inhibits inflammatory pain and morphine analgesia.
Accumulating evidence demonstrates that GRP is a key neurotransmitter in pruriceptors for mediating histamine-independent itch. BNP-NPRA signaling is involved in both itch and pain and does not function upstream of the GRP-GRPR dedicated neuronal pathway. The site of BNP action in itch and pain and its relationship with GRP remain to be clarified.
PMCID: PMC3930899  PMID: 24438367
BNP; NPRA; GRP; GRPR; Itch; Pain; Spinal cord; DRG
8.  Opposing effects of Toll-like receptors 2 and 4 on synaptic stability in the spinal cord after peripheral nerve injury 
Glial cells are involved in the synaptic elimination process that follows neuronal lesions, and are also responsible for mediating the interaction between the nervous and immune systems. Neurons and glial cells express Toll-like receptors (TLRs), which may affect the plasticity of the central nervous system (CNS). Because TLRs might also have non-immune functions in spinal-cord injury (SCI), we aimed to investigate the influence of TLR2 and TLR4 on synaptic plasticity and glial reactivity after peripheral nerve axotomy.
The lumbar spinal cords of C3H/HePas wild-type (WT) mice, C3H/HeJ TLR4-mutant mice, C57BL/6J WT mice, and C57BL/6J TLR2 knockout (KO) mice were studied after unilateral sciatic nerve transection. The mice were killed via intracardiac perfusion, and the spinal cord was processed for immunohistochemistry, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), western blotting, cell culture, and reverse transcriptase PCR. Primary cultures of astrocytes from newborn mice were established to study the astrocyte response in the absence of TLR2 and the deficiency of TLR4 expression.
The results showed that TLR4 and TLR2 expression in the CNS may have opposite effects on the stability of presynaptic terminals in the spinal cord. First, TLR4 contributed to synaptic preservation of terminals in apposition to lesioned motor neurons after peripheral injury, regardless of major histocompatibility complex class I (MHC I) expression. In addition, in the presence of TLR4, there was upregulation of glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor and downregulation of interleukin-6, but no morphological differences in glial reactivity were seen. By contrast, TLR2 expression led to greater synaptic loss, correlating with increased astrogliosis and upregulation of pro-inflammatory interleukins. Moreover, the absence of TLR2 resulted in the upregulation of neurotrophic factors and MHC I expression.
TLR4 and TLR2 in the CNS may have opposite effects on the stability of presynaptic terminals in the spinal cord and in astroglial reactions, indicating possible roles for these proteins in neuronal and glial responses to injury.
PMCID: PMC3533899  PMID: 23092428
9.  Imiquimod enhances excitability of dorsal root ganglion neurons by inhibiting background (K2P) and voltage-gated (Kv1.1 and Kv1.2) potassium channels 
Molecular Pain  2012;8:2.
Imiquimod (IQ) is known as an agonist of Toll-like receptor 7 (TLR7) and is widely used to treat various infectious skin diseases. However, it causes severe itching sensation as its side effect. The precise mechanism of how IQ causes itching sensation is unknown. A recent report suggested a molecular target of IQ as TLR7 expressed in dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons. However, we recently proposed a TLR7-independent mechanism, in which the activation of TLR7 is not required for the action of IQ in DRG neurons. To resolve this controversy regarding the involvement of TLR7 and to address the exact molecular identity of itching sensation by IQ, we investigated the possible molecular target of IQ in DRG neurons.
When IQ was applied to DRG neurons, we observed an increase in action potential (AP) duration and membrane resistance both in wild type and TLR7-deficient mice. Based on these results, we tested whether the treatment of IQ has an effect on the activity of K+ channels, Kv1.1 and Kv1.2 (voltage-gated K+ channels) and TREK1 and TRAAK (K2P channels). IQ effectively reduced the currents mediated by both K+ channels in a dose-dependent manner, acting as an antagonist at TREK1 and TRAAK and as a partial antagonist at Kv1.1 and Kv1.2.
Our results demonstrate that IQ blocks the voltage-gated K+ channels to increase AP duration and K2P channels to increase membrane resistance, which are critical for the membrane excitability of DRG neurons. Therefore, we propose that IQ enhances the excitability of DRG neurons by blocking multiple potassium channels and causing pruritus.
PMCID: PMC3292985  PMID: 22233604
10.  The majority of dorsal spinal cord gastrin releasing peptide is synthesized locally whereas neuromedin B is highly expressed in pain- and itch-sensing somatosensory neurons 
Molecular Pain  2012;8:52.
Itch is one of the major somatosensory modalities. Some recent findings have proposed that gastrin releasing peptide (Grp) is expressed in a subset of dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons and functions as a selective neurotransmitter for transferring itch information to spinal cord interneurons. However, expression data from public databases and earlier literatures indicate that Grp mRNA is only detected in dorsal spinal cord (dSC) whereas its family member neuromedin B (Nmb) is highly expressed in DRG neurons. These contradictory results argue that a thorough characterization of the expression of Grp and Nmb is warranted.
Grp mRNA is highly expressed in dSC but is barely detectable in DRGs of juvenile and adult mice. Anti-bombesin serum specifically recognizes Grp but not Nmb. Grp is present in a small number of small-diameter DRG neurons and in abundance in layers I and II of the spinal cord. The reduction of dSC Grp after dorsal root rhizotomy is significantly different from those of DRG derived markers but similar to that of a spinal cord neuronal marker. Double fluorescent in situ of Nmb and other molecular markers indicate that Nmb is highly and selectively expressed in nociceptive and itch-sensitive DRG neurons.
The majority of dSC Grp is synthesized locally in dorsal spinal cord neurons. On the other hand, Nmb is highly expressed in pain- and itch-sensing DRG neurons. Our findings provide direct anatomic evidence that Grp could function locally in the dorsal spinal cord in addition to its roles in DRG neurons and that Nmb has potential roles in nociceptive and itch-sensitive neurons. These results will improve our understanding about roles of Grp and Nmb in mediating itch sensation.
PMCID: PMC3495671  PMID: 22776446
Gastrin releasing peptide; Neuromedin B; Itch; Dorsal root ganglion; Spinal cord
11.  Neural peptidase endothelin-converting enzyme 1 regulates endothelin 1–induced pruritus 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2014;124(6):2683-2695.
In humans, pruritus (itch) is a common but poorly understood symptom in numerous skin and systemic diseases. Endothelin 1 (ET-1) evokes histamine-independent pruritus in mammals through activation of its cognate G protein–coupled receptor endothelin A receptor (ETAR). Here, we have identified neural endothelin–converting enzyme 1 (ECE-1) as a key regulator of ET-1–induced pruritus and neural signaling of itch. We show here that ETAR, ET-1, and ECE-1 are expressed and colocalize in murine dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons and human skin nerves. In murine DRG neurons, ET-1 induced internalization of ETAR within ECE-1–containing endosomes. ECE-1 inhibition slowed ETAR recycling yet prolonged ET-1–induced activation of ERK1/2, but not p38. In a murine itch model, ET-1–induced scratching behavior was substantially augmented by pharmacological ECE-1 inhibition and abrogated by treatment with an ERK1/2 inhibitor. Using iontophoresis, we demonstrated that ET-1 is a potent, partially histamine-independent pruritogen in humans. Immunohistochemical evaluation of skin from prurigo nodularis patients confirmed an upregulation of the ET-1/ETAR/ECE-1/ERK1/2 axis in patients with chronic itch. Together, our data identify the neural peptidase ECE-1 as a negative regulator of itch on sensory nerves by directly regulating ET-1–induced pruritus in humans and mice. Furthermore, these results implicate the ET-1/ECE-1/ERK1/2 pathway as a therapeutic target to treat pruritus in humans.
PMCID: PMC4038561  PMID: 24812665
12.  Dermatomal Scratching After Intramedullary Quisqualate Injection: Correlation With Cutaneous Denervation 
Central nervous system lesions cause peripheral dysfunctions currently attributed to central cell death that compromises function of intact peripheral nerves. Injecting quisqualate (QUIS) into the rat spinal cord models spinal cord injury (SCI) and causes at-level scratching and self-injury. Such overgrooming was interpreted to model pain until patients with self-injurious scratching after SCI reported itch motivated scratching that was painless because of sensory loss. Because self-injurious scratching is difficult to explain by central mechanisms alone, we hypothesized that QUIS injections damage peripheral axons of at-level afferents. QUIS was injected into thoracic spinal cords of 18 Long-Evans rats. Animals were killed 3 days after overgrooming began or 14 days after injection. Spinal cord lesions were localized and DRG-immunolabeled for ATF-3. At-level and control skin samples were PGP9.5-immunabeled to quantify axons. Eighty-four percent of QUIS rats overgroomed. Skin in these regions had lost two-thirds of epidermal innervation as compared with controls (P < .001). Rats that overgroomed had 47% less axon-length than nongrooming rats (P = .006). The presence of ATF-3 immunolabeled neurons within diagnosis-related groups of QUIS rats indicated death of afferent cell bodies. Overgrooming after QUIS injections may not be due entirely to central changes. As in humans, self-injurious neuropathic scratching appeared to require loss of protective pain sensations in addition to peripheral denervation.
This study suggests that intramedullary injection of quisqualic acid in rats causes death of at-level peripheral as well as central neurons. Self-injurious dermatomal scratching that develops in spinal-injured rats may reflect neuropathic itch and loss of protective pain sensations.
PMCID: PMC3128346  PMID: 18619906
Itch; pruritus; neuropathic pain; spinal cord injury; allodynia; ATF-3
13.  Enhanced scratching evoked by PAR-2 agonist and 5-HT but not histamine in a mouse model of chronic dry skin itch 
Pain  2010;151(2):378-383.
Chronic itch is a symptom of many skin conditions and systemic disease, and it has been hypothesized that the chronic itch may result from sensitization of itch-signaling pathways. We induced experimental chronic dry skin on the rostral back of mice, and observed a significant increase in spontaneous hindlimb scratches directed to the dry skin. Spontaneous scratching was significantly attenuated by a PAR-2 antibody and 5-HT2A receptor antagonist, indicating activation of these receptors by endogeneous mediators released under dry skin conditions. We also observed a significant increase in the number of scratch bouts evoked by acute intradermal injections of a protease-activated receptor (PAR)-2 agonist and serotonin (5-HT), but not histamine. We additionally investigated if pruritogen-evoked activity of dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons is enhanced in this model. DRG cells from dry skin mice exhibited significantly larger responses to the PAR-2 agonist and 5-HT, but not histamine. Spontaneous scratching may reflect ongoing itch, and enhanced pruritogen-evoked scratching may represent hyperknesis (enhanced itch), both potentially due to sensitization of itch-signaling neurons. The correspondence between enhanced behavioral scratching and DRG cell responses suggests that peripheral pruriceptors that respond to proteases and 5-HT, but not histamine, may be sensitized in dry skin itch.
PMCID: PMC2955821  PMID: 20709455
14.  Absence of histamine-induced itch in the African naked mole-rat and "rescue" by Substance P 
Molecular Pain  2010;6:29.
Recent research has proposed a pathway in which sensory neurons expressing the capsaicin activated ion channel TRPV1 are required for histamine-induced itch and subsequent scratching behavior. We examined histamine-induced itch in the African naked mole-rat (Heterocephalus glaber) and found that although naked mole-rats display innate scratching behavior, histamine was unable to evoke increased scratching as is observed in most mouse strains. Using calcium imaging, we examined the histamine sensitivity of naked mole-rat dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons and identified a population of small diameter neurons activated by histamine, the majority of which are also capsaicin-sensitive. This suggested that naked mole-rat sensory neurons are activated by histamine, but that spinal dorsal horn processing of sensory information is not the same as in other rodents. We have previously shown that naked mole-rats naturally lack substance P (SP) in cutaneous C-fibers, but that the neurokinin-1 receptor is expressed in the superficial spinal cord. This led us to investigate if SP deficiency plays a role in the lack of histamine-induced scratching in this species. After intrathecal administration of SP into the spinal cord we observed robust scratching behavior in response to histamine injection. Our data therefore support a model in which TRPV1-expressing sensory neurons are important for histamine-induced itch. In addition, we demonstrate a requirement for active, SP-induced post-synaptic drive to enable histamine sensitive afferents to drive itch-related behavior in the naked mole-rat. These results illustrate that it is altered dorsal horn connectivity of nociceptors that underlies the lack of itch and pain-related behavior in the naked mole-rat.
PMCID: PMC2886013  PMID: 20497578
15.  Primary Afferent and Spinal Cord Expression of Gastrin-Releasing Peptide: Message, Protein, and Antibody Concerns 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2015;35(2):648-657.
There is continuing controversy relating to the primary afferent neurotransmitter that conveys itch signals to the spinal cord. Here, we investigated the DRG and spinal cord expression of the putative primary afferent-derived “itch” neurotransmitter, gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP). Using ISH, qPCR, and immunohistochemistry, we conclude that GRP is expressed abundantly in spinal cord, but not in DRG neurons. Titration of the most commonly used GRP antiserum in tissues from wild-type and GRP mutant mice indicates that the antiserum is only selective for GRP at high dilutions. Paralleling these observations, we found that a GRPeGFP transgenic reporter mouse has abundant expression in superficial dorsal horn neurons, but not in the DRG. In contrast to previous studies, neither dorsal rhizotomy nor an intrathecal injection of capsaicin, which completely eliminated spinal cord TRPV1-immunoreactive terminals, altered dorsal horn GRP immunoreactivity. Unexpectedly, however, peripheral nerve injury induced significant GRP expression in a heterogeneous population of DRG neurons. Finally, dual labeling and retrograde tracing studies showed that GRP-expressing neurons of the superficial dorsal horn are predominantly interneurons, that a small number coexpress protein kinase C gamma (PKCγ), but that none coexpress the GRP receptor (GRPR). Our studies support the view that pruritogens engage spinal cord “itch” circuits via excitatory superficial dorsal horn interneurons that express GRP and that likely target GRPR-expressing interneurons. The fact that peripheral nerve injury induced de novo GRP expression in DRG neurons points to a novel contribution of this peptide to pruritoceptive processing in neuropathic itch conditions.
PMCID: PMC4293415  PMID: 25589759
DRG; GRP; GRPR; itch; nerve injury; pain
16.  Loss of NR1 Subunit of NMDARs in Primary Sensory Neurons Leads to Hyperexcitability and Pain Hypersensitivity: Involvement of Ca2+-Activated Small Conductance Potassium Channels 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2013;33(33):13425-13430.
It is well established that activation of NMDARs plays an essential role in spinal cord synaptic plasticity (i.e., central sensitization) and pain hypersensitivity after tissue injury. Despite prominent expression of NMDARs in DRG primary sensory neurons, the unique role of peripheral NMDARs in regulating intrinsic neuronal excitability and pain sensitivity is not well understood, in part due to the lack of selective molecular tools. To address this problem, we used Advillin-Cre driver to delete the NR1 subunit of NMDARs selectively in DRG neurons. In NR1 conditional knock-out (NR1-cKO) mice, NR1 expression is absent in DRG neurons but remains normal in spinal cord neurons; NMDA-induced currents are also eliminated in DRG neurons of these mice. Surprisingly, NR1-cKO mice displayed mechanical and thermal hypersensitivity compared with wild-type littermates. NR1-deficient DRG neurons show increased excitability, as indicated by increased frequency of action potentials, and enhanced excitatory synaptic transmission in spinal cord slices, as indicated by increased frequency of miniature EPSCs. This hyperexcitability can be reproduced by the NMDAR antagonist APV and by Ca2+-activated slow conductance K+ (SK) channel blocker apamin. Furthermore, NR1-positive DRG neurons coexpress SK1/SK2 and apamin-sensitive afterhyperpolarization currents are elevated by NMDA and suppressed by APV in these neurons. Our findings reveal the hitherto unsuspected role of NMDARs in controlling the intrinsic excitability of primary sensory neurons possibly via Ca2+-activated SK channels. Our results also call attention to potential opposing effects of NMDAR antagonists as a treatment for pain and other neurological disorders.
PMCID: PMC3742928  PMID: 23946399
17.  Nalfurafine prevents GNTI- and compound 48/80-induced spinal c-fos expression and attenuates GNTI-elicited scratching behavior in mice 
Neuroscience  2009;163(1):23-33.
The aims of the present study were to establish if nalfurafine, a kappa opioid agonist, inhibits compulsive scratching in mice elicited by the s.c. administration (behind the neck) of 5′-guanidinonaltrindole (GNTI), a kappa opioid antagonist; to assess if nalfurafine prevents c-fos expression provoked by GNTI or compound 48/80, two chemically diverse pruritogens; and to distinguish on the basis of neuroanatomy, those neurons in the brainstem activated by either GNTI-induced itch or formalin-induced pain (both compounds given s.c. to the right cheek). Pretreatment of mice with nalfurafine (0.001–0.03 mg/kg, s.c.) attenuated GNTI (0.3 mg/kg)-evoked scratching dose-dependently. A standard antiscratch dose of nalfurafine (0.02 mg/kg) had no marked effect on the spontaneous locomotion of mice. Tolerance did not develop to the antiscratch activity of nalfurafine. Both GNTI and compound 48/80 provoked c-fos expression on the lateral side of the superficial layer of the dorsal horn of the cervical spinal cord and pretreating mice with nalfurafine inhibited c-fos expression induced by both pruritogens. In contrast to formalin, GNTI did not induce c-fos expression in the trigeminal nucleus suggesting that pain and itch sensations are projected differently along the sensory trigeminal pathway. Our data indicate that the kappa opioid system is involved, at least in part, in the pathogenesis of itch; and that nalfurafine attenuates excessive scratching and prevents scratch-induced neuronal activity at the spinal level. On the basis of our results, nalfurafine holds promise as a potentially useful antipruritic in human conditions involving itch.
PMCID: PMC2735087  PMID: 19524022
itch; pain; kappa opioid receptor agonist; compound 48/80; kappa opioid receptor antagonist
18.  Transplant restoration of spinal cord inhibitory controls ameliorates neuropathic itch 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2014;124(8):3612-3616.
The transmission of pruritoceptive (itch) messages involves specific neural circuits within the spinal cord that are distinct from those that transmit pain messages. These itch-specific circuits are tonically regulated by inhibitory interneurons in the dorsal horn. Consistent with these findings, it has previously been reported that loss of GABAergic interneurons in mice harboring a deletion of the transcription factor Bhlhb5 generates a severe, nonremitting condition of chronic itch. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the neuropathic itch in BHLHB5-deficient animals can be treated by restoring inhibitory controls through spinal cord transplantation and integration of precursors of cortical inhibitory interneurons derived from the embryonic medial ganglionic eminence. We specifically targeted the transplants to segments of the spinal cord innervated by areas of the body that were most severely affected. BHLHB5-deficient mice that received transplants demonstrated a substantial reduction of excessive scratching and dramatic resolution of skin lesions. In contrast, the scratching persisted and skin lesions worsened over time in sham-treated mice. Together, these results indicate that cell-mediated restoration of inhibitory controls has potential as a powerful, cell-based therapy for neuropathic itch that not only ameliorates symptoms of chronic itch, but also may modify disease.
PMCID: PMC4109547  PMID: 25003193
19.  Toll-like receptor 2 contributes to chemokine gene expression and macrophage infiltration in the dorsal root ganglia after peripheral nerve injury 
Molecular Pain  2011;7:74.
We have previously reported that nerve injury-induced neuropathic pain is attenuated in toll-like receptor 2 (TLR2) knock-out mice. In these mice, inflammatory gene expression and spinal cord microglia actvation is compromised, whereas the effects in the dorsal root ganglia (DRG) have not been tested. In this study, we investigated the role of TLR2 in inflammatory responses in the DRG after peripheral nerve injury.
L5 spinal nerve transection injury induced the expression of macrophage-attracting chemokines such as CCL2/MCP-1 and CCL3/MIP-1 and subsequent macrophage infiltration in the DRG of wild-type mice. In TLR2 knock-out mice, however, the induction of chemokine expression and macrophage infiltration following nerve injury were markedly reduced. Similarly, the induction of IL-1β and TNF-α expression in the DRG by spinal nerve injury was ameliorated in TLR2 knock-out mice. The reduced inflammatory response in the DRG was accompanied by attenuation of nerve injury-induced spontaneous pain hypersensitivity in TLR2 knock-out mice.
Our data show that TLR2 contributes to nerve injury-induced proinflammatory chemokine/cytokine gene expression and macrophage infiltration in the DRG, which may have relevance in the reduced pain hypersensitivity in TLR2 knock-out mice after spinal nerve injury.
PMCID: PMC3192680  PMID: 21951975
20.  A subpopulation of nociceptors specifically linked to itch 
Nature neuroscience  2012;16(2):174-182.
Itch-specific neurons have been sought for decades. The existence of such neurons is in doubt recently due to the observation that itch-mediating neurons also respond to painful stimuli. Here, we genetically labeled and manipulated MrgprA3+ neurons in dorsal root ganglion (DRG) and found that they exclusively innervate the epidermis of the skin and respond to multiple pruritogens. Ablation of MrgprA3+ neurons led to significant reductions in scratching evoked by multiple pruritogens and occurring spontaneously under chronic itch conditions whereas pain sensitivity remained intact. Importantly, mice with TRPV1 exclusively expressed in MrgprA3+ neurons exhibited only itch- and not pain behavior in response to capsaicin. Although MrgprA3+ neurons are sensitive to noxious heat, activation of TRPV1 in these neurons by noxious heat did not alter pain behavior. These data suggest that MrgprA3 defines a specific subpopulation of DRG neurons mediating itch. Our study opens new avenues for studying itch and developing anti-pruritic therapies.
PMCID: PMC3557753  PMID: 23263443
21.  Roles of glutamate, substance P and gastrin releasing peptide as spinal neurotransmitters of histaminergic and non-histaminergic itch 
Pain  2013;155(1):80-92.
We investigated roles for substance P (SP), gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP), and glutamate in the spinal neurotransmission of histamine-dependent and –independent itch. In anesthetized mice, responses of single superficial dorsal horn neurons to intradermal (id) injection of chloroquine were partially reduced by spinal application of the AMPA/kainate antagonist CNQX. Co-application of CNQX plus a neurokinin-1 (NK-1) antagonist produced stronger inhibition, while co-application of CNQX, NK-1 and GRP receptor (GRPR) antagonists completely inhibited firing. Nociceptive-specific and wide dynamic range-type neurons exhibited differential suppression by CNQX plus either the GRPR or NK-1 antagonist, respectively. Neuronal responses elicited by id histamine were abolished by CNQX alone. In behavioral studies, individual intrathecal administration of a GRPR, NK-1 or AMPA antagonist each significantly attenuated chloroquine-evoked scratching behavior. Co-administration of the NK-1 and AMPA antagonists was more effective, and administration of all three antagonists abolished scratching. Intrathecal CNQX alone prevented histamine-evoked scratching behavior. We additionally employed a double-label strategy to investigate molecular markers of pruritogen-sensitive dorsal root ganglion (DRG) cells. DRG cells responsive to histamine and/or chloroquine, identified by calcium imaging, were then processed for co-expression of SP, GRP or vesicular glutamate transporter type 2 (VGLUT2) immunofluorescence. Subpopulations of chloroquine- and/or histamine-sensitive DRG cells were immunopositive for SP and/or GRP, with >80% immunopositive for VGLUT2. These results indicate that SP, GRP and glutamate each partially contributes to histamine-independent itch. Histamine-evoked itch is mediated primarily by glutamate with GRP playing a lesser role. Co-application of NK-1, GRP and AMPA receptor antagonists may prove beneficial in treating chronic itch.
PMCID: PMC3947363  PMID: 24041961
22.  Frontiers in pruritus research: scratching the brain for more effective itch therapy 
Journal of Clinical Investigation  2006;116(5):1174-1186.
This Review highlights selected frontiers in pruritus research and focuses on recently attained insights into the neurophysiological, neuroimmunological, and neuroendocrine mechanisms underlying skin-derived itch (pruritogenic pruritus), which may affect future antipruritic strategies. Special attention is paid to newly identified itch-specific neuronal pathways in the spinothalamic tract that are distinct from pain pathways and to CNS regions that process peripheral pruritogenic stimuli. In addition, the relation between itch and pain is discussed, with emphasis on how the intimate contacts between these closely related yet distinct sensory phenomena may be exploited therapeutically. Furthermore, newly identified or unduly neglected intracutaneous itch mediators (e.g., endovanilloids, proteases, cannabinoids, opioids, neurotrophins, and cytokines) and relevant receptors (e.g., vanilloid receptor channels and proteinase-activated, cannabinoid, opioid, cytokine, and new histamine receptors) are discussed. In summarizing promising new avenues for managing itch more effectively, we advocate therapeutic approaches that strive for the combination of peripherally active antiinflammatory agents with drugs that counteract chronic central itch sensitization.
PMCID: PMC1451220  PMID: 16670758
23.  Site- and state-dependent inhibition of pruritogen-responsive spinal neurons by scratching 
The European journal of neuroscience  2012;36(3):2311-2316.
The relief of itch by scratching is thought to involve inhibition of pruritogen-responsive neurons in the spinal cord. We presently recorded responses of superficial dorsal horn neurons in mice to intradermal injection of the pruritogens chloroquine and histamine. Scratching within an area 5–17 mm distant from the injection site, outside of the units’ mechanoreceptive fields (off-site), significantly inhibited chloroquine- and histamine-evoked responses without affecting capsaicin-evoked firing. This is consistent with observations that scratching at a distance from a site of itch is antipruritic. In contrast, scratching directly at the injection site (within the receptive field; on-site) had no effect on chloroquine-evoked neuronal firing, but enhanced the same neurons’ responses to intradermal injection of the algogen, capsaicin. Moreover, neuronal responses to histamine were enhanced during on-site scratching, followed by suppression of firing below baseline levels after termination of scratching. Scratching thus inhibits pruritogen-responsive neurons in a manner that depends on the input modality (i.e., pain vs. histamine-dependent or histamine-independent itch) and skin location.
PMCID: PMC3412914  PMID: 22626250
itch; pain; histamine; mice; superficial dorsal horn neurons
24.  CGRPα-Expressing Sensory Neurons Respond to Stimuli that Evoke Sensations of Pain and Itch 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36355.
Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRPα, encoded by Calca) is a classic marker of nociceptive dorsal root ganglia (DRG) neurons. Despite years of research, it is unclear what stimuli these neurons detect in vitro or in vivo. To facilitate functional studies of these neurons, we genetically targeted an axonal tracer (farnesylated enhanced green fluorescent protein; GFP) and a LoxP-stopped cell ablation construct (human diphtheria toxin receptor; DTR) to the Calca locus. In culture, 10–50% (depending on ligand) of all CGRPα-GFP-positive (+) neurons responded to capsaicin, mustard oil, menthol, acidic pH, ATP, and pruritogens (histamine and chloroquine), suggesting a role for peptidergic neurons in detecting noxious stimuli and itch. In contrast, few (2.2±1.3%) CGRPα-GFP+ neurons responded to the TRPM8-selective cooling agent icilin. In adult mice, CGRPα-GFP+ cell bodies were located in the DRG, spinal cord (motor neurons and dorsal horn neurons), brain and thyroid—reproducibly marking all cell types known to express Calca. Half of all CGRPα-GFP+ DRG neurons expressed TRPV1, ∼25% expressed neurofilament-200, <10% contained nonpeptidergic markers (IB4 and Prostatic acid phosphatase) and almost none (<1%) expressed TRPM8. CGRPα-GFP+ neurons innervated the dorsal spinal cord and innervated cutaneous and visceral tissues. This included nerve endings in the epidermis and on guard hairs. Our study provides direct evidence that CGRPα+ DRG neurons respond to agonists that evoke pain and itch and constitute a sensory circuit that is largely distinct from nonpeptidergic circuits and TRPM8+/cool temperature circuits. In future studies, it should be possible to conditionally ablate CGRPα-expressing neurons to evaluate sensory and non-sensory functions for these neurons.
PMCID: PMC3341357  PMID: 22563493
25.  Toll-like Receptor-7 Mediates Pruritus 
Nature neuroscience  2010;13(12):1460-1462.
Toll-like receptors (TLRs) are typically expressed in immune cells to regulate innate immunity. Here we report that functional TLR7 is expressed in C-fiber primary sensory neurons and important for inducing itch (pruritis) but not necessary for eliciting mechanical, thermal, inflammatory and neuropathic pain in mice. Thus, we have uncovered TLR7 as a novel itch mediator and a potential therapeutic target for anti-itch treatment in skin disease conditions.
PMCID: PMC2991508  PMID: 21037581

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