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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter November 14, 2019

Role of the immune system in neuropathic pain

  • Marzia Malcangio EMAIL logo



Acute pain is a warning mechanism that exists to prevent tissue damage, however pain can outlast its protective purpose and persist beyond injury, becoming chronic. Chronic Pain is maladaptive and needs addressing as available medicines are only partially effective and cause severe side effects. There are profound differences between acute and chronic pain. Dramatic changes occur in both peripheral and central pathways resulting in the pain system being sensitised, thereby leading to exaggerated responses to noxious stimuli (hyperalgesia) and responses to non-noxious stimuli (allodynia).

Critical role for immune system cells in chronic pain

Preclinical models of neuropathic pain provide evidence for a critical mechanistic role for immune cells in the chronicity of pain. Importantly, human imaging studies are consistent with preclinical findings, with glial activation evident in the brain of patients experiencing chronic pain. Indeed, immune cells are no longer considered to be passive bystanders in the nervous system; a consensus is emerging that, through their communication with neurons, they can both propagate and maintain disease states, including neuropathic pain. The focus of this review is on the plastic changes that occur under neuropathic pain conditions at the site of nerve injury, the dorsal root ganglia (DRG) and the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. At these sites both endothelial damage and increased neuronal activity result in recruitment of monocytes/macrophages (peripherally) and activation of microglia (centrally), which release mediators that lead to sensitisation of neurons thereby enabling positive feedback that sustains chronic pain.

Immune system reactions to peripheral nerve injuries

At the site of peripheral nerve injury following chemotherapy treatment for cancer for example, the occurrence of endothelial activation results in recruitment of CX3C chemokine receptor 1 (CX3CR1)-expressing monocytes/macrophages, which sensitise nociceptive neurons through the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that activate transient receptor potential ankyrin 1 (TRPA1) channels to evoke a pain response. In the DRG, neuro-immune cross talk following peripheral nerve injury is accomplished through the release of extracellular vesicles by neurons, which are engulfed by nearby macrophages. These vesicles deliver several determinants including microRNAs (miRs), with the potential to afford long-term alterations in macrophages that impact pain mechanisms. On one hand the delivery of neuron-derived miR-21 to macrophages for example, polarises these cells towards a pro-inflammatory/pro-nociceptive phenotype; on the other hand, silencing miR-21 expression in sensory neurons prevents both development of neuropathic allodynia and recruitment of macrophages in the DRG.

Immune system mechanisms in the central nervous system

In the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, growing evidence over the last two decades has delineated signalling pathways that mediate neuron-microglia communication such as P2X4/BDNF/GABAA, P2X7/Cathepsin S/Fractalkine/CX3CR1, and CSF-1/CSF-1R/DAP12 pathway-dependent mechanisms.

Conclusions and implications

Definition of the modalities by which neuron and immune cells communicate at different locations of the pain pathway under neuropathic pain states constitutes innovative biology that takes the pain field in a different direction and provides opportunities for novel approaches for the treatment of chronic pain.

  1. Author’s statements

  2. Research funding: Current work In MM lab is supported by the Medical Research Council UK (MR/M023893/1 and MR/T002883/1), Versus Arthritis (grant 21961); European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme “TOBeATPAIN” under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 764860.

  3. Conflicts of interest: The author declares no conflict of interest.

  4. Informed consent: Not applicable.

  5. Ethical approval: Not applicable.


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Received: 2019-10-21
Accepted: 2019-10-22
Published Online: 2019-11-14
Published in Print: 2019-12-18

©2020 Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain. Published by Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston. All rights reserved.

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