Somatic afferent input to the spinal cord from a peripheral inflammatory site can modulate the peripheral response. However, the intracellular signaling mechanisms in the spinal cord that regulate this linkage have not been defined. Previous studies suggest spinal cord p38 mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase and cytokines participate in nociceptive behavior. We therefore determined whether these pathways also regulate peripheral inflammation in rat adjuvant arthritis, which is a model of rheumatoid arthritis.
Methods and Findings
Selective blockade of spinal cord p38 MAP kinase by administering the p38 inhibitor SB203580 via intrathecal (IT) catheters in rats with adjuvant arthritis markedly suppressed paw swelling, inhibited synovial inflammation, and decreased radiographic evidence of joint destruction. The same dose of SB203580 delivered systemically had no effect, indicating that the effect was mediated by local concentrations in the neural compartment. Evaluation of articular gene expression by quantitative real-time PCR showed that spinal p38 inhibition markedly decreased synovial interleukin-1 and −6 and matrix metalloproteinase (MMP3) gene expression. Activation of p38 required tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) in the nervous system because IT etanercept (a TNF inhibitor) given during adjuvant arthritis blocked spinal p38 phosphorylation and reduced clinical signs of adjuvant arthritis.
These data suggest that peripheral inflammation is sensed by the central nervous system (CNS), which subsequently activates stress-induced kinases in the spinal cord via a TNFα-dependent mechanism. Intracellular p38 MAP kinase signaling processes this information and profoundly modulates somatic inflammatory responses. Characterization of this mechanism could have clinical and basic research implications by supporting development of new treatments for arthritis and clarifying how the CNS regulates peripheral immune responses.
Inhibition of p38 MAP kinase in the CNS reduces peripheral inflammation and joint destruction in arthritic rats.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease marked by chronic inflammation, leading to joint pain and destruction. Pain and inflammation in the joints as well as other locations in the body (i.e., the “periphery”) are constantly monitored by the central nervous system (i.e., the brain and spinal cord). Scientists have long suspected that the central nervous system (CNS) can regulate inflammation and immune responses, but little is known about how the CNS does this. One potential player is a protein called p38 that is involved in a number of cellular processes critical to the development of rheumatoid arthritis. Several substances that block the action of p38 are effective in animal models of arthritis and are currently being tested in clinical trials in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Originally, p38 was considered as a drug target that should mainly be blocked in the joints. But recent work has shown that pain in the periphery can lead to activation of p38 in the spinal cord, and that blocking p38 in the spinal cord might reduce peripheral pain.
Why Was This Study Done?
Based on the observation that p38 is activated in the CNS in response to peripheral pain, the researchers who did this study wondered whether it might be involved in the interaction between inflammation in the joints and the CNS.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They induced inflammation in the joints of rats and then looked for responses in the spinal cord. They found that p38 was indeed activated in the spinal cord of these rats. This activation depended on another protein, called TNFα, which is another major regulator of inflammation. The scientists then blocked either p38 or the TNFα with drugs directly delivered to the spinal cord of the arthritic rats, they could substantially reduce inflammation, arthritis, and destruction of the joints, compared with rats that had undergone the same treatment but received no active drug. Treatment of arthritic rats with the same amount of drugs given directly under the skin (this is called “systemic treatment”) did not have any effect on the joints.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Blocking p38 and TNFα by giving drugs systemically is known to have beneficial effects in animal models and human patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, the drugs tested in patients to date also have side effects. Given that much lower doses were needed to achieve beneficial effects in the rats when the drugs were administered directly into the spinal cord, it is possible that spinal cord administration might reduce the side effects (and possibly the costs) of the drugs without compromising the benefits to the patients. If future studies confirm that the action of these drugs on the CNS is essential to achieve a response even when administered as a systemic treatment, designing drugs that get into the CNS easier might improve the effectiveness and/or make it possible to use lower doses systemically.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030338.
MedlinePlus entry on rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis pages from the US National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Rheumatoid Arthritis fact sheet from the American College of Rheumatology Description
Wikipedia entry on rheumatoid arthritis (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit)