In rats, cannabinoids inhibit behavioral responses to noxious stimulation with a potency and efficacy similar to that of morphine. However, because cannabinoids depress motor function, it has not been possible to state beyond any doubt that these effects were related to a dampening of noxious sensory input. Therefore, c-fos immunocytochemistry was used to explore the possibility that cannabinoids reduce behavioral responses to noxious stimuli by decreasing spinal processing of nociceptive inputs. Rats received systemic injections of the potent and selective cannabinoid agonist WIN 55,212-2, the receptor-inactive enantiomer WIN 55,212-3 or vehicle prior to observations in a model of tonic pain, the formalin test. As demonstrated previously, plantar injections of formalin led to lifting and licking of the injected paw, with two peaks of activity occurring at 5 and 30 min after injection. The cannabinoid agonist suppressed these pain responses and produced a reduction in mobility. Immunocytochemical processing of sections with an antibody to the Fos protein revealed that the cannabinoid markedly suppressed pain-evoked c-fos expression in the superficial and neck regions of the spinal dorsal horn, but not in the nucleus proprius. Decreased expression of c-fos also occurred in the ventral horn. The specificity of this effect and its probable mediation by cannabinoid receptors are suggested by three findings: (i) the suppression by the drug of both behavioral and immunocytochemical responses to pain was dose-dependent; (ii) neither the behavioral nor the immunocytochemical response to the noxious stimulus was significantly affected by the receptor-inactive enantiomer of the agonist; (iii) animals rendered tolerant to cannabinoids by repeated injections of the agonist showed reduced responses to the drug. These findings suggest that cannabinoids inhibit the spinal processing of nociceptive stimuli and support the notion that endogenous cannabinoids may act naturally to modify pain transmission within the central nervous system.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Patricka nd Nancy Lai for technical assistance.T he authors are also grateful for the financial support from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NS33247).