Background: The neurotrophin Nerve Growth factor (NGF) is known to influence the phenotype of mature nociceptors, for example by altering synthesis of neuropeptides, and changes in NGF levels have been implicated in the pathophysiology of chronic pain conditions such as neuropathic pain. We have tested the hypothesis that after partial nerve injury, NGF accumulates within the skin and causes 'pro-nociceptive' phenotypic changes in the remaining population of sensory nerve fibres, which could underpin the development of neuropathic pain.
Results: Eleven days after chronic constriction injury of the rat mental nerve the intra-epidermal nerve fibre density of the chin skin from had reduced from 11.6 ± 4.9 fibres/mm to 1.0 ± 0.4 fibres/mm; this slowly recovered to 2.4 ± 2.0 fibres/mm on day 14 and 4.0 ± 0.8 fibres/mm on day 21. Cold hyperalgesia in the ipsilateral lower lip was detectable 11 days after chronic constriction injury, although at this time skin [NGF] did not differ between sides. At 14 days post-injury, there was a significantly greater [NGF] ipsilaterally compared to contralaterally (ipsilateral = 111 ± 23 pg/mg, contralateral = 69 ± 13 pg/mg), but there was no behavioural evidence of neuropathic pain at this time-point. By 21 days post-injury, skin [NGF] was elevated bilaterally and there was a significant increase in the proportion of TrkA-positive (the high-affinity NGF receptor) intra-epidermal nerve fibres that were immunolabelled for the neuropeptide Calcitonin Gene-related peptide.
Conclusions: The temporal mismatch in behaviour, skin [NGF] and phenotypic changes in sensory nerve fibres indicate that increased [NGF] does not cause hyperalgesia after partial mental nerve injury, although it may contribute to the altered neurochemistry of cutaneous nerve fibres.