Adaptations in responsiveness of brainstem pain-modulating neurons in acute compared with chronic inflammation

Pain. 2013 Jun;154(6):845-55. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.02.019. Epub 2013 Feb 28.


Despite similar behavioral hypersensitivity, acute and chronic pain have distinct neural bases. We used intraplantar injection of complete Freund's adjuvant to directly compare activity of pain-modulating neurons in the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM) in acute vs chronic inflammation. Heat-evoked and von Frey-evoked withdrawal reflexes and corresponding RVM neuronal activity were recorded in lightly anesthetized animals either during the first hour after complete Freund's adjuvant injection (acute) or 3 to 10 days later (chronic). Thermal and modest mechanical hyperalgesia during acute inflammation were associated with increases in the spontaneous activity of pain-facilitating ON-cells and suppression of pain-inhibiting OFF-cells. Acute hyperalgesia was reversed by RVM block, showing that the increased activity of RVM ON-cells is necessary for acute behavioral hypersensitivity. In chronic inflammation, thermal hyperalgesia had resolved but mechanical hyperalgesia had become pronounced. The spontaneous discharges of ON- and OFF-cells were not different from those in control subjects, but the mechanical response thresholds for both cell classes were reduced into the innocuous range. RVM block in the chronic condition worsened mechanical hyperalgesia. These studies identify distinct contributions of RVM ON- and OFF-cells to acute and chronic inflammatory hyperalgesia. During early immune-mediated inflammation, ON-cell spontaneous activity promotes hyperalgesia. After inflammation is established, the antinociceptive influence of OFF-cells is dominant, yet the lowered threshold for the OFF-cell pause allows behavioral responses to stimuli that would normally be considered innocuous. The efficacy of OFF-cells in counteracting sensitization of ascending transmission pathways could therefore be an important determining factor in development of chronic inflammatory pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / physiopathology*
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Inflammation / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Pain / complications
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley