Capsaicin-sensitive C- and A-fibre nociceptors control long-term potentiation-like pain amplification in humans

Brain. 2015 Sep;138(Pt 9):2505-20. doi: 10.1093/brain/awv108. Epub 2015 May 4.


Long-term potentiation in the spinal dorsal horn requires peptidergic C-fibre activation in animals. Perceptual correlates of long-term potentiation following high-frequency electrical stimulation in humans include increased sensitivity to electrical stimuli at the high frequency stimulation site (homotopic pain-long-term potentiation) and increased sensitivity to pinprick surrounding the high frequency stimulation site (heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation, equivalent to secondary hyperalgaesia). To characterize the peripheral fibre populations involved in induction of pain-long-term potentiation, we performed two selective nerve block experiments in 30 healthy male volunteers. Functional blockade of TRPV1-positive nociceptors by high-concentration capsaicin (verified by loss of heat pain) significantly reduced pain ratings to high frequency stimulation by 47% (P < 0.001), homotopic pain-long-term potentiation by 71% (P < 0.01), heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation by 92% (P < 0.001) and the area of secondary hyperalgesia by 76% (P < 0.001). The selective blockade of A-fibre conduction by nerve compression (verified by loss of first pain to pinprick) significantly reduced pain ratings to high frequency stimulation by 37% (P < 0.01), but not homotopic pain-long-term potentiation (-5%). It had a marginal effect on heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation (-35%, P = 0.059), while the area of secondary hyperalgesia remained unchanged (-2%, P = 0.88). In conclusion, all nociceptor subclasses contribute to high frequency stimulation-induced pain (with a relative contribution of C > Aδ fibres, and an equal contribution of TRPV1-positive and TRPV1-negative fibres). TRPV1-positive C-fibres are the main inducers of both homotopic and heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation. TRPV1-positive A-fibres contribute substantially to the induction of heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation. TRPV1-negative C-fibres induce a component of homotopic self-facilitation but not heterotopic pain-long-term potentiation. TRPV1-negative A-fibres are the main afferents mediating pinprick pain and hyperalgesia, however, they do not appear to contribute to the induction of pain-long-term potentiation. These findings show that distinct peripheral fibre classes mediate induction of long-term potentiation-like pain amplification, its spatial spread to adjacent skin (i.e. secondary hyperalgesia), and the resulting enhanced sensitivity to pinprick in humans. Nociceptive afferents that induce pain amplification can be readily dissociated from those mediating pain. These findings add substantially to our understanding of the mechanisms of pain amplification, that form the basis for understanding the mechanisms of hyperalgesia encountered in patients.See Sandkühler (doi:10.1093/brain/awv193) for a scientific commentary on this article.

Keywords: central sensitisation; dynamic mechanical allodynia; hyperalgesia; peptidergic nociceptors; transient receptor potential channels (TRPV1).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biophysics
  • Capsaicin / pharmacology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology
  • Long-Term Potentiation / drug effects*
  • Male
  • Nerve Fibers / drug effects*
  • Neural Conduction / drug effects
  • Nociceptors / drug effects*
  • Nociceptors / physiology
  • Pain / chemically induced
  • Pain / pathology*
  • Pain Threshold / drug effects
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Sensory System Agents / pharmacology*
  • Skin / innervation
  • TRPV Cation Channels / metabolism
  • Young Adult


  • Sensory System Agents
  • TRPV Cation Channels
  • TRPV1 protein, human
  • Capsaicin