In reference to Microglia and Pain: A Manual Therapy Perspective I, and Microglia and Pain: A Manual Therapy Perspective II:
The Dorsal Horn and Microglia
What role do microglia play in pain? Dorsal horns are the laminated posterior areas of the spinal cord where incoming sensory info is handled. Secondary neurons within the cord, actual CNS neurons, deal with it from then on. At the junction between the incoming sensory neurons and the secondary ascending neurons, there are, yes, you guessed it, microglia hanging around, waiting for a chance to “activate” and move along novel chemo-attractive gradients, substances released into the parenchyma by the presence of inflammation(6) and hypoxia(3), among other things(1), including nerve compression.
Once “activated” they “feed,” increase their populations, leave behind chemical “litter.” These chemicals “inhibit” the secondary ascending fibers. Inhibition? That’s good, isn’t it? Well, maybe not - if your job as a secondary ascending neuron is to be a bottle-neck, and your “bottleneck” function becomes inhibited by microglial activation, the brain is more likely to be confronted by too much nociception, too rapidly, and will need to allocate new resources to learn to downregulate it somehow.
What stimulates microglia at a spinal cord level? The Textbook of Pain chapter states, nerve “damage” such as spinal nerve ligation, chronic constriction injury, or rhizotomy. These are factors associated with neuropathic pain definitions, moreso than neurogenic. But remember the overlap. McMahon et al go on to say:
1. “..synaptic connections between neurons are in a continual state of change highly dependent on the activity not only of the pre- and postsynaptic neurons but also of the surrounding glia.
2. ..continual interplay of various modulatory processes serves to produce synaptic modifications (plasticity) that underlie physiological processes such as learning and memory.
3...common molecular pathways that produce these normal forms of plasticity also lead to pathological processes characterized by excessive excitation, including …pain.
4. In the dorsal horn, central sensitization is a form of excessive excitatory synaptic response in nociceptive transmission neurons, which leads to an increased gain of the pain transmission system and pain hypersensitivity.
5. Our knowledge of the molecular mechanisms of pain plasticity in the dorsal horn is rapidly growing.
6. Future advances will provide new insights into the neurobiological basis of pain, and we anticipate that these will provide the basis for novel types of analgesics and of new diagnostic and management strategies beyond what is presently envisaged.”
The story isn’t over yet, but it’s probably safe to say that whatever makes a synapse in the dorsal horn behave in a manner outside the norm is likely to gain the attention of microglia in the cord. They are thought to be responsible for mechanical allodynia that comes along with central sensitization, based on studies that carefully manipulated the P2X4 receptor they express9. Furthermore, whatever helps a synapse in the dorsal horn recover its ability to conduct business as usual, will likely help decrease central sensitization. It may be that the future of pain control will be in the hands of whoever can find the means to keep the microglial population in check and not allow them to gain the upper hand.
The fourth post will contain references and links to these three content posts.
All pictures/links have been added for the blog and did not appear in the article.
(Picture of dorsal horn was adapted from Nature Neuroscience)