Excitotoxicity due to excessive synaptic glutamate release is featured in many neurological conditions in which neuronal death occurs. Whether activation of primary sensory pathways can ever produce sufficient over-activity in secondary sensory neurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord to induce cell death, however, has not been determined. In this study, we asked whether activity in myelinated afferents (A fibers), which use glutamate as a transmitter, can induce cell death in the dorsal horn. Using stereological estimates of neuron numbers from electron microscopic sections, we found that stimulation of A-fibers in an intact sciatic nerve at 10 Hz, 20 Hz, and 50 Hz in 10-minute intervals at a stimulus strength that activates both Abeta and Adelta fibers resulted in the loss of 25% of neurons in lamina III, the major site of termination of large Abeta fibers, but not in lamina I, where Adelta fibers terminate. Furthermore, sciatic nerve lesions did not result in detectable neuron loss, but activation of A fibers in a previously sectioned sciatic nerve did cause substantial cell death not only in lamina III but also in laminae I and II. The expansion of the territory of A-fiber afferent-evoked cell death is likely to reflect the sprouting of the fibers into these laminae after peripheral nerve injury. The data show, therefore, that primary afferent A-fiber activity can cause neuronal cell death in the dorsal horn with an anatomical distribution that depends on whether intact or injured fibers are activated. Stimulation-induced cell death potentially may contribute to the development of persistent pain.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.