Type I Interferons Act Directly on Nociceptors to Produce Pain Sensitization: Implications for Viral Infection-Induced Pain

J Neurosci. 2020 Apr 29;40(18):3517-3532. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3055-19.2020. Epub 2020 Apr 3.


One of the first signs of viral infection is body-wide aches and pain. Although this type of pain usually subsides, at the extreme, viral infections can induce painful neuropathies that can last for decades. Neither of these types of pain sensitization is well understood. A key part of the response to viral infection is production of interferons (IFNs), which then activate their specific receptors (IFNRs) resulting in downstream activation of cellular signaling and a variety of physiological responses. We sought to understand how type I IFNs (IFN-α and IFN-β) might act directly on nociceptors in the dorsal root ganglion (DRG) to cause pain sensitization. We demonstrate that type I IFNRs are expressed in small/medium DRG neurons and that their activation produces neuronal hyper-excitability and mechanical pain in mice. Type I IFNs stimulate JAK/STAT signaling in DRG neurons but this does not apparently result in PKR-eIF2α activation that normally induces an anti-viral response by limiting mRNA translation. Rather, type I IFNs stimulate MNK-mediated eIF4E phosphorylation in DRG neurons to promote pain hypersensitivity. Endogenous release of type I IFNs with the double-stranded RNA mimetic poly(I:C) likewise produces pain hypersensitivity that is blunted in mice lacking MNK-eIF4E signaling. Our findings reveal mechanisms through which type I IFNs cause nociceptor sensitization with implications for understanding how viral infections promote pain and can lead to neuropathies.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT It is increasingly understood that pathogens interact with nociceptors to alert organisms to infection as well as to mount early host defenses. Although specific mechanisms have been discovered for diverse bacterial and fungal pathogens, mechanisms engaged by viruses have remained elusive. Here we show that type I interferons, one of the first mediators produced by viral infection, act directly on nociceptors to produce pain sensitization. Type I interferons act via a specific signaling pathway (MNK-eIF4E signaling), which is known to produce nociceptor sensitization in inflammatory and neuropathic pain conditions. Our work reveals a mechanism through which viral infections cause heightened pain sensitivity.

Keywords: MNK; dorsal root ganglion; eIF4E; nociceptor; type I interferon.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Central Nervous System Viral Diseases / chemically induced
  • Central Nervous System Viral Diseases / metabolism*
  • Central Nervous System Viral Diseases / pathology
  • Female
  • Ganglia, Spinal / drug effects
  • Ganglia, Spinal / metabolism
  • Ganglia, Spinal / pathology
  • Interferon Type I / toxicity*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Nociceptors / drug effects
  • Nociceptors / metabolism*
  • Nociceptors / pathology
  • Pain / chemically induced
  • Pain / metabolism*
  • Pain / pathology
  • Pain Threshold / drug effects
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / chemically induced
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / metabolism*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / pathology


  • Interferon Type I

Supplementary concepts

  • Neuropathy, Painful