Background: Mechanisms underlying neuropathic pain relief by the neurosteroid allopregnanolone remain uncertain. We investigated if allopregnanolone attenuates glial extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) activation in the cuneate nucleus (CN) concomitant with neuropathic pain relief in median nerve chronic constriction injury (CCI) model rats. Methods: We examined the time course and cellular localization of phosphorylated ERK (p-ERK) in CN after CCI. We subsequently employed microinjection of a mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (ERK kinase) inhibitor, PD98059, to clarify the role of ERK phosphorylation in neuropathic pain development. Furthermore, we explored the effects of allopregnanolone (by mouth), intra-CN microinjection of γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptor antagonist (bicuculline) or γ-aminobutyric acid type B receptor antagonist (phaclofen) plus allopregnanolone, and allopregnanolone synthesis inhibitor (medroxyprogesterone; subcutaneous) on ERK activation and CCI-induced behavioral hypersensitivity. Results: At 7 days post-CCI, p-ERK levels in ipsilateral CN were significantly increased and reached a peak. PD98059 microinjection into the CN 1 day after CCI dose-dependently attenuated injury-induced behavioral hypersensitivity (withdrawal threshold [mean ± SD], 7.4 ± 1.1, 8.7 ± 1.0, and 10.3 ± 0.8 g for 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0 mM PD98059, respectively, at 7 days post-CCI; n = 6 for each dose). Double immunofluorescence showed that p-ERK was localized to both astrocytes and microglia. Allopregnanolone significantly diminished CN p-ERK levels, glial activation, proinflammatory cytokines, and behavioral hypersensitivity after CCI. Bicuculline, but not phaclofen, blocked all effects of allopregnanolone. Medroxyprogesterone treatment reduced endogenous CN allopregnanolone and exacerbated nerve injury-induced neuropathic pain. Conclusions: Median nerve injury-induced CN glial ERK activation modulated the development of behavioral hypersensitivity. Allopregnanolone attenuated glial ERK activation and neuropathic pain via γ-aminobutyric acid type A receptors. Reduced endogenous CN allopregnanolone after medroxyprogesterone administration rendered rats more susceptible to CCI-induced neuropathy.
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