Publication Date



The Journal of Neuroscience


Neuropathic pain is a major, inadequately treated challenge for people with spinal cord injury (SCI). While SCI pain mechanisms are often assumed to be in the CNS, rodent studies have revealed mechanistic contributions from primary nociceptors. These neurons become chronically hyperexcitable after SCI, generating ongoing electrical activity that promotes ongoing pain. A major question is whether extrinsic chemical signals help to drive ongoing electrical activity after SCI. People living with SCI exhibit acute and chronic elevation of circulating levels of macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF), a cytokine implicated in preclinical pain models. Probable nociceptors isolated from male rats and exposed to an MIF concentration reported in human plasma (1 ng/ml) showed hyperactivity similar to that induced by SCI, although, surprisingly, a 10-fold higher concentration failed to increase excitability. Conditioned behavioral aversion to a chamber associated with peripheral MIF injection suggested that MIF stimulates affective pain. A MIF inhibitor, Iso-1, reversed SCI-induced hyperexcitability. Unlike chronic SCI-induced hyperexcitability, acute MIF-induced hyperexcitability was only partially abrogated by inhibiting ERK signaling. Unexpectedly, MIF concentrations that induced hyperactivity in nociceptors from naive animals, after SCI induced a long-lasting conversion from a highly excitable nonaccommodating type to a rapidly accommodating, hypoexcitable type, possibly as a homeostatic response to prolonged depolarization. Treatment with conditioned medium from cultures of DRG cells obtained after SCI was sufficient to induce MIF-dependent hyperactivity in neurons from naive rats. Thus, changes in systemic and DRG levels of MIF may help to maintain SCI-induced nociceptor hyperactivity that persistently promotes pain.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Chronic neuropathic pain is a major challenge for people with spinal cord injury (SCI). Pain can drastically impair quality of life, and produces substantial economic and social burdens. Available treatments, including opioids, remain inadequate. This study shows that the cytokine macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) can induce pain-like behavior and plays an important role in driving persistent ongoing electrical activity in injury-detecting sensory neurons (nociceptors) in a rat SCI model. The results indicate that SCI produces an increase in MIF release within sensory ganglia. Low MIF levels potently excite nociceptors, but higher levels trigger a long-lasting hypoexcitable state. These findings suggest that therapeutic targeting of MIF in neuropathic pain states may reduce pain and sensory dysfunction by curbing nociceptor hyperactivity.


DRG, conditioned place avoidance, cytokine, depolarizing spontaneous fluctuation, hyperexcitability, hypoexcitability



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.