Numerous studies have implicated the primary afferent derived neuropeptide, substance P, which exerts its effects via the neurokinin-1/substance P receptor, in the transmission of nociceptive messages at the level of the spinal cord. Immunocytochemical studies demonstrate that the substance P receptor is concentrated in neurons of lamina I of the superficial dorsal horn. Since alterations in the number and distribution of the receptor may underlie persistent pain conditions, we have used immunocytochemistry to study the distribution of the receptor in two very different rat models of persistent pain: chronic inflammation, which is associated with increased levels of substance P, and sciatic nerve section, which is associated with decreased levels of substance P in the dorsal horn. Inflammation was produced by unilateral hindpaw injection of complete Freund's adjuvant. We report that there is an up-regulation of substance P receptor immunoreactivity in the superficial laminae of the dorsal horn in both injury models. The increase was found at all time points studied (up to one week after induction of inflammation and up to two weeks after sciatic nerve section). The increase in substance P receptor immunoreactivity was not only present in the medial part of the dorsal horn at segment L4, which is the region of input of the afferents from the hindpaw, but also in the lateral parts of the dorsal horn, and at segments rostral (L1) and caudal (S1) to the afferent input from the hindpaw. These results indicate that the up-regulation of the receptor is not predictable merely by the change in the concentration of substance P in the dorsal horn. Furthermore, the non-topographic up-regulation of substance P receptor in these different conditions may contribute to the central sensitization of dorsal horn nociceptors under conditions of persistent pain.
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