We investigated whether uninjured cutaneous C-fiber nociceptors in primates develop abnormal responses after partial denervation of the skin. Partial denervation was induced by tightly ligating spinal nerve L6 that innervates the dorsum of the foot. Using an in vitro skin-nerve preparation, we recorded from uninjured single afferent nerve fibers in the superficial peroneal nerve. Recordings were made from 32 C-fiber nociceptors 2-3 wk after ligation and from 29 C-fiber nociceptors in control animals. Phenylephrine, a selective α1-adrenergic agonist, and UK14304 (UK), a selective α2- adrenergic agonist, were applied to the receptive field for 5 min in increasing concentrations from 0.1 to 100 μM. Nociceptors from in vitro control experiments were not significantly different from nociceptors recorded by us previously in in vivo experiments. In comparison to in vitro control animals, the afferents found in lesioned animals had 1) a significantly higher incidence of spontaneous activity, 2) a significantly higher incidence of response to phenylephrine, and 3) a higher incidence of response to UK. In lesioned animals, the peak response to phenylephrine was significantly greater than to UK, and the mechanical threshold of phenylephrine-sensitive afferents was significantly lower than for phenylephrine-insensitive afferents. Staining with protein gene product 9.5 revealed an ~55% reduction in the number of unmyelinated terminals in the epidermis of the lesioned limb compared with the contralateral limb. Thus uninjured cutaneous C-fiber nociceptors that innervate skin partially denervated by ligation of a spinal nerve acquire two abnormal properties: spontaneous activity and α-adrenergic sensitivity. These abnormalities in nociceptor function may contribute to neuropathic pain.
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