Adenosine in the spinal cord and periphery: release and regulation of pain

Prog Neurobiol. 2003 Apr;69(5):313-40. doi: 10.1016/s0301-0082(03)00050-9.


In the central nervous system (CNS), adenosine is an important neuromodulator and regulates neuronal and non-neuronal cellular function (e.g. microglia) by actions on extracellular adenosine A(1), A(2A), A(2B) and A(3) receptors. Extracellular levels of adenosine are regulated by synthesis, metabolism, release and uptake of adenosine. Adenosine also regulates pain transmission in the spinal cord and in the periphery, and a number of agents can alter the extracellular availability of adenosine and subsequently modulate pain transmission, particularly by activation of adenosine A(1) receptors. The use of capsaicin (which activates receptors selectively expressed on C-fibre afferent neurons and produces neurotoxic actions in certain paradigms) allows for an interpretation of C-fibre involvement in such processes. In the spinal cord, adenosine availability/release is enhanced by depolarization (K(+), capsaicin, substance P, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)), by inhibition of metabolism or uptake (inhibitors of adenosine kinase (AK), adenosine deaminase (AD), equilibrative transporters), and by receptor-operated mechanisms (opioids, 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), noradrenaline (NA)). Some of these agents release adenosine via an equilibrative transporter indicating production of adenosine inside the cell (K(+), morphine), while others release nucleotide which is converted extracellularly to adenosine by ecto-5'-nucleotidase (capsaicin, 5-HT). Release can be capsaicin-sensitive, Ca(2+)-dependent and involve G-proteins, and this suggests that within C-fibres, Ca(2+)-dependent intracellular processes regulate production and release of adenosine. In the periphery, adenosine is released from both neuronal and non-neuronal sources. Neuronal release from capsaicin-sensitive afferents is induced by glutamate and by neurogenic inflammation (capsaicin, low concentration of formalin), while that from sympathetic postganglionic neurons (probably as adenosine 5'-triphosphate (ATP) with NA) occurs following more generalized inflammation. Such release is modified differentially by inhibitors of AK and AD. Following nerve injury, there is an alteration in capsaicin-sensitive adenosine release, as spinal release now is less responsive to opioids, while peripheral release is less responsive to inhibitors of metabolism. Following inflammation, adenosine is released from a variety of cell types in addition to neurons (e.g. endothelial cells, neutrophils, mast cells, fibroblasts). ATP is released both spinally and peripherally following inflammation or injury, and may be converted to adenosine by ecto-5'-nucleotidase contributing an additional source of adenosine. Release of adenosine from both spinal and peripheral compartments has inhibitory effects on pain transmission, as methylxanthine adenosine receptor antagonists reduce analgesia produced by agents which augment extracellular levels of adenosine spinally (morphine, 5-HT, substance P, AK inhibitors) and peripherally (AK inhibitors, AD inhibitors). Increases in extracellular adenosine availability also may contribute to antiinflammatory effects of certain agents (methotrexate, sulfasalazine, salicylates, AK inhibitors), and this could have secondary effects on pain signalling in chronic inflammation. The purpose of the present review is to consider: (a). the factors that regulate the extracellular availability of adenosine in the spinal cord and at peripheral sites; and (b). the extent to which this adenosine affects pain signalling in these two distinct compartments.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine / metabolism*
  • Afferent Pathways / metabolism
  • Afferent Pathways / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Pain / metabolism*
  • Peripheral Nerves / metabolism*
  • Spinal Cord / metabolism*


  • Adenosine