Because nerve growth factor (NGF) is elevated during inflammation and is known to activate the sphingomyelin signalling pathway, we examined whether NGF and its putative second messenger, ceramide, could modulate the excitability of capsaicin-sensitive adult and embryonic sensory neurons. Using the whole-cell patch-clamp recording technique, exposure of isolated sensory neurons to either 100 ng ml-1 NGF or 1 μM N-acetyl sphingosine (C2-ceramide) produced a 3- to 4-fold increase in the number of action potentials (APs) evoked by a ramp of depolarizing current in a time-dependent manner. Intracellular perfusion with bacterial sphingomyelinase (SMase) also increased the number of APs suggesting that the release of native ceramide enhanced neuronal excitability. Glutathione, an inhibitor of neutral SMase, completely blocked the NGF-induced augmentation of AP firing, whereas dithiothreitol, an inhibitor of acidic SMase, was without effect. In the presence of glutathione and NGF, exogenous ceramide still enhanced the number of evoked APs, indicating that the sensitizing action of ceramide was downstream of NGF. To investigate the mechanisms of action for NGF and ceramide, isolated membrane currents were examined. Both NGF and ceramide facilitated the peak amplitude of the TTX-resistant sodium current (TTX-RINa) by approximately 1.5-fold and shifted the activation to more hyperpolarized voltages. In addition, NGF and ceramide suppressed an outward potassium current (IK) by ∼35 %. Ceramide reduced IK in a concentration-dependent manner. Isolation of the NGF- and ceramide-sensitive currents indicates that they were delayed rectifier types of IK. The inflammatory prostaglandin, PGE2, produced an additional suppression of IK after exposure to ceramide (∼35%), suggesting that these agents might act on different targets. Thus, our findings indicate that the pro-inflammatory agent, NGF, can rapidly enhance the excitability of sensory neurons. This NGF-induced sensitization is probably mediated by activation of the sphingomyelin signalling pathway to liberate ceramide(s), wherein ceramide appears to be the second messenger involved in modulating neuronal excitability.
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