Nerve growth factor induces sensitization of nociceptors without evidence for increased intraepidermal nerve fiber density

Michael Hirth, Roman Rukwied, Alois Gromann, Brian Turnquist, Benjamin Weinkauf, Klaus Francke, Philip Albrecht, Frank Rice, Björn Hägglöf, Matthias Ringkamp, Maren Engelhardt, Christian Schultz, Martin Schmelz, Otilia Obreja

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Nerve growth factor (NGF) is involved in the long-term sensitization of nociceptive processing linked to chronic pain. Functional and structural ("sprouting") changes can contribute. Thus, humans report long-lasting hyperalgesia to mechanical and electrical stimulation after intradermal NGF injection and NGF-induced sprouting has been reported to underlie cancer bone pain and visceral pain. Using a human-like animal model we investigated the relationship between the structure and function of unmyelinated porcine nociceptors 3 weeks after intradermal NGF treatment. Axonal and sensory characteristics were studied by in vivo single-fiber electrophysiology and immunohistochemistry. C fibers recorded extracellularly were classified based on mechanical response and activity-dependent slowing (ADS) of conduction velocity. Intraepidermal nerve fiber (IENF) densities were assessed by immunohistochemistry in pigs and in human volunteers using the same NGF model. NGF increased conduction velocity and reduced ADS and propagation failure in mechano-insensitive nociceptors. The proportion of mechano-sensitive C nociceptors within NGF-treated skin areas increased from 45.1% (control) to 71% and their median mechanical thresholds decreased from 40 to 20 mN. After NGF application, the mechanical receptive fields of nociceptors increased from 25 to 43 mm2. At the structural level, however, IENF density was not increased by NGF. In conclusion, intradermal NGF induces long-lasting axonal and mechanical sensitization in porcine C nociceptors that corresponds to hyperalgesia observed in humans. Sensitization is not accompanied by increased IENF density, suggesting that NGF-induced hyperalgesia might not depend on changes in nerve fiber density but could be linked to the recruitment of previously silent nociceptors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2500-2511
Number of pages12
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Axon
  • Hyperalgesia
  • Nerve growth factor
  • Sensitization
  • Sprouting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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