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Management of chronic pain is a real challenge, and current treatments that focus on blocking neurotransmission in the pain pathway have resulted in limited success. Activation of glial cells has been widely implicated in neuroinflammation in the CNS, leading to neurodegeneration in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis. The inflammatory mediators released by activated glial cells, such as tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukin-1β not only cause neurodegeneration in these disease conditions, but also cause abnormal pain by acting on spinal cord dorsal horn neurons in injury conditions. Pain can also be potentiated by growth factors such as brain-derived growth factor and basic fibroblast growth factor, which are produced by glia to protect neurons. Thus, glial cells can powerfully control pain when they are activated to produce various pain mediators. We review accumulating evidence that supports an important role for microglial cells in the spinal cord for pain control under injury conditions (e.g. nerve injury). We also discuss possible signaling mechanisms, in particular mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways that are crucial for glial-mediated control of pain. Investigating signaling mechanisms in microglia might lead to more effective management of devastating chronic pain.
Although pain is regarded traditionally as neuronally mediated, recent progress shows an important role of spinal glial cells in persistent pain sensitization. Mounting evidence has implicated spinal microglia in the development of chronic pain (e.g. neuropathic pain after peripheral nerve injury). Less is known about the role of astrocytes in pain regulation. However, astrocytes have very close contact with synapses and maintain homeostasis in the extracellular environment. In this review, we provide evidence to support a role of spinal astrocytes in maintaining chronic pain. In particular, c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) is activated persistently in spinal astrocytes in a neuropathic pain condition produced by spinal nerve ligation. This activation is required for the maintenance of neuropathic pain because spinal infusion of JNK inhibitors can reverse mechanical allodynia, a major symptom of neuropathic pain. Further study reveals that JNK is activated strongly in astrocytes by basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), an astroglial activator. Intrathecal infusion of bFGF also produces persistent mechanical allodynia. After peripheral nerve injury, bFGF might be produced by primary sensory neurons and spinal astrocytes because nerve injury produces robust bFGF upregulation in both cell types. Therefore, the bFGF/JNK pathway is an important signalling pathway in spinal astrocytes for chronic pain sensitization. Investigation of signaling mechanisms in spinal astrocytes will identify new molecular targets for the management of chronic pain.
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