Insulin deficiency may contribute toward the neurological deficits of diabetic polyneuropathy (DPN). In particular, the unique trophic properties of insulin, acting on sensory neuron and axon receptors offer an approach toward reversing loss of skin axons that develops during diabetes. Here we examined how local cutaneous insulin, acting on axon receptors, influences innervation of the epidermis. That cutaneous axons might be amenable to regrowth was suggested by confirming that a high proportion of epidermal axons expressed GAP43/B50, a growth associated protein. Also, IRβ (insulin receptor subunit β) mRNA was expressed and upregulated in the footpads of diabetic mice and protein expression was upregulated in their sensory dorsal root ganglia. Moreover, footpads expressed mRNAs of the downstream insulin transduction molecules, IRS-1 and IRS-2. IRβ protein was identified in dermal axons, some epidermal sensory axons, and in keratinocytes. In separate models of experimental diabetes, we identified a surprising and rapid local response of this axon population to insulin. C57BL/6J streptozotocin (STZ) injected mice, as a model of type 1 diabetes and dbdb mice, as a model of type 2 diabetes were both evaluated after 3 months of diabetes duration. Local hindpaw plantar injections of low dose subhypoglycemic insulin (that did not alter diabetic hyperglycemia) and carrier (into the opposite paw) were given over two days and innervation studied at 5 days. Insulin injections in both models were associated with an ipsilateral rise in the density of PGP 9.5 labeled diabetic epidermal axons at 5 days, compared to that of their contralateral carrier injected hindpaw. Nondiabetic controls did not have changes in innervation following insulin. In a separate cohort of STZ diabetic mice and controls evaluated for paw sensation, there was mild improvement in mechanical, but not thermal sensation at 2 weeks after insulin injection in diabetics but not controls. Fine unmyelinated epidermal axons have considerable plasticity. Here we identify a rapid improvement of skin innervation by doses of insulin insufficient to alter glycemia or innervation of the opposite paw. Local direct insulin signaling of receptors expressed on diabetic cutaneous axons may reverse retraction of their branches during experimental DPN.
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