Skin biopsies from patients with neuropathic pain often show changes in epidermal innervation, although it remains to be elucidated to what extent such changes can be linked to a particular subgroup of nerve fibers and how these changes are correlated with pain intensity. Here, we investigated to what extent behavioral signs of hyperalgesia are correlated with immunohistochemical changes of peptidergic and non-peptidergic epidermal nerve fibers in a rat model of nerve injury-induced pain. Rats subjected to unilateral partial ligation of the sciatic nerve developed significant mechanical and thermal hyperalgesia as tested by the withdrawal responses of the ipsilateral footpad to von Frey hairs and hotplate stimulation. At day 14, epidermal nerve fiber density and total epidermal nerve fiber length/mm2 were significantly and consistently reduced compared to the contralateral side, following testing and re-testing by two blinded observers. The expression of calcitonin gene-related peptide, a marker for peptidergic nerve fibers, was not significantly changed on the ipsilateral side. In contrast, the expression of the P2X3 receptor, a marker for non-peptidergic nerve fibers, was not only significantly reduced but could also be correlated with behavioral hyperalgesia. When labeling both peptidergic and non-peptidergic nerve fibers with the pan-neuronal marker PGP9.5, the expression was significantly reduced, albeit without a significant correlation with behavioral hyperalgesia. In conjunction, our data suggest that the pathology of the P2X3 epidermal nerve fibers can be selectively linked to neuropathy, highlighting the possibility that it is the degeneration of these fibers that drives hyperalgesia.

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The Journal of Comparative Neurology
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Bechakra, A.-M., Schüttenhelm, B., Pederzani, T., van Doorn, P., de Zeeuw, C., & Jongen, J. (2017). The reduction of intraepidermal P2X3 nerve fiber density correlates with behavioral hyperalgesia in a rat model of nerve injury-induced pain. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 525(17), 3757–3768. doi:10.1002/cne.24302