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We investigated roles for spinal neurons expressing the neurokinin-1 receptor (NK1R) and/or gastrin-releasing peptide receptor (GRPR) in a mouse model of ovalbumin (OVA)-induced chronic atopic dermatitis. Mice receiving repeated topical application of OVA exhibited atopic-like skin lesions and behavioral signs of chronic itch including spontaneous scratching, touch-evoked scratching (alloknesis), and enhancement of chloroquine-evoked scratching (hyperknesis). Substance P-saporin (SP-SAP) and bombesin-saporin (BB-SAP) were intrathecally injected into OVA-sensitized mice to neurotoxically ablate NK1R- or GRPR-expressing spinal neurons, respectively. SP-SAP diminished the expression of NK1R in the superficial spinal dorsal horn and significantly attenuated all behavioral signs of chronic itch. BB-SAP reduced the spinal dorsal horn expression of GRPR and significantly attenuated hyperknesis, with no effect on spontaneous scratching or alloknesis. To investigate whether NK1R-expressing spinal neurons project in ascending somatosensory pathways, we performed a double-label study. The retrograde tracer, Fluorogold (FG), was injected into either the somatosensory thalamus or lateral parabrachial nucleus. In the upper cervical (C1-2) spinal cord, most neurons retrogradely labeled with FG were located in the dorsomedial aspect of the superficial dorsal horn. Of FG-labeled spinal neurons, 89% to 94% were double labeled for NK1R. These results indicate that NK1R-expressing spinal neurons play a major role in the expression of symptoms of chronic itch and give rise to ascending somatosensory projections. Gastrin-releasing peptide receptor-expressing spinal neurons contribute to hyperknesis but not to alloknesis or ongoing itch. NK1R-expressing spinal neurons represent a potential target to treat chronic itch.

(C) 2015 International Association for the Study of Pain