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Science News: Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor Derived from Sensory Neurons Plays a Critical Role in Chronic Pain

Submitted by Francisco E. Gomez, MD, News Science Editorial Board 
Additional comments by David B. Rosenfield, MD, News Science Editorial Board

Sikandar S, Minett MS, Q, Santana-Varela S, Lau J, Wood JN, Zhao J. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor derived from sensory neurons plays a critical role in chronic pain. Brain, Volume 141, Issue 4, 1 April 2018, Pages 1028–1039. 

In this ambitious study, investigators sought to determine the role of sensory neuron – brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – in the genesis of chronic pain. They included a group of mice in whom they ablated the expression of BDNF in dorsal root ganglia neurons, and a control. BDNF ablation had no effect on motor function, general pain perception or threshold and there were no significant differences in pain related behavior between the ablated and control groups. The BDNF ablated mice did show hyposensitivity to noxious heat. 

Most notably, in chronic and neuropathic pain models, the BDNF ablated mice showed less nociceptive behavior and decreased mechanical hypersensitivity. Notably, upon injection of carrageenan (an inflammatory mediator), the experimental mice demonstrated much faster pain recovery in terms of mechanical hypersensitivity recovery. 

Authors concluded that BDNF plays no part in acute pain perception, but does mediate chronic pain in some capacity. More importantly, they demonstrated that targeted gene ablation in specific cell population as a viable method of exploring therapeutic targets. 

Dr. Gomez’s Comments: The importance of this study is twofold. First, it opens the door to a number of questions directly relevant to a number of patients who live with chronic pain. What is the role of BDNF in humans? Could it be a viable target for patients with neuropathy? What is the role of BDNF in the pathophysiology of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy? Is there hope for a new avenue of treatment for any of these patients? Additionally, the viability of selectively turning off single genes in specific cell populations is tantalizing, to say the least, in terms of the possibilities of new avenues for research. 

Dr. Rosenfield’s Summary and Comments: This article in Brain demonstrates that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) ablated mice had less nocioceptive behavior and decreased mechanical hypersensitivity but that this substance may have a role in mediating chronic pain, possibly even in Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

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