The association between spinal cord trauma-sensitive miRNAs and pain sensitivity, and their regulation by morphine.
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Increased pain sensitivity is a common sequela to spinal cord injury (SCI). Moreover, drugs like morphine, though critical for pain management, elicit pro-inflammatory effects that exacerbate chronic pain symptoms. Previous reports showed that SCI results in the induction and suppression of several microRNAs (miRNAs), both at the site of injury, as well as in segments of the spinal cord distal to the injury site. We hypothesized that morphine would modulate the expression of these miRNAs, and that expression of these SCI-sensitive miRNAs may predict adaptation of distal nociceptive circuitry following SCI. To determine whether morphine treatment further dysregulates SCI-sensitive miRNAs, their expression was examined by qRT-PCR in sham controls and in response to vehicle and morphine treatment following contusion in rats, at either 2 or 15 days post-SCI. Our data indicated that expression of miR1, miR124, and miR129-2 at the injury site predicted the nociceptive response mediated by spinal regions distal to the lesion site, suggesting a molecular mechanism for the interaction of SCI with adaptation of functionally intact distal sensorimotor circuitry. Moreover, the SCI-induced miRNA, miR21 was induced by subsequent morphine administration, representing an alternate, and hitherto unidentified, maladaptive response to morphine exposure. Contrary to predictions, mRNA for the pro-inflammatory interleukin-6 receptor (IL6R), an identified target of SCI-sensitive miRNAs, was also induced following SCI, indicating dissociation between miRNA and target gene expression. Moreover, IL6R mRNA expression was inversely correlated with locomotor function suggesting that inflammation is a predictor of decreased spinal cord function. Collectively, our data indicate that miR21 and other SCI-sensitive miRNAs may constitute therapeutic targets, not only for improving functional recovery following SCI, but also for attenuating the effects of SCI on pain sensitivity.