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While sensory loss in leprosy skin is the consequence of invasion by M. leprae of Schwann cells related to unmyelinated fibres, early loss of cutaneous pain sensation, even in the presence of nerve fibres and inflammation is a hallmark of leprosy, and requires explanation. In normal skin, nerve growth factor (NGF) is produced by basal keratinocytes, and acts via its high affinity receptor (trk A) on nociceptor nerve fibres to increase their sensitivity, particularly in inflammation. We have therefore studied NGF- and trk A-like immunoreactivity in affected skin and mirror-site clinically-unaffected skin from patients with leprosy, and compared these with non-leprosy, control skin, following quantitative sensory testing at each site. Sensory tests were within normal limits in clinically-unaffected leprosy skin, but markedly abnormal in affected skin. Sub-epidermal PGP 9.5- and trk A-positive nerve fibres were reduced only in affected leprosy skin, with fewer fibres contacting keratinocytes. However, NGF-immunoreactivity in basal keratinocytes, and intra-epidermal PGP 9.5-positive nerve fibres, were reduced in both sites compared to non-leprosy controls, as were nerve fibres positive for the sensory neurone specific sodium channel SNS/PN3, which is regulated by NGF, and may mediate inflammation-induced hypersensitivity. Keratinocyte trk A expression (which mediates an autocrine role for NGF) was increased in clinically affected and unaffected skin, suggesting a compensatory mechanism secondary to reduced NGF secretion at both sites. We conclude that decreased NGF- and SNS/PN3-immunoreactivity, and loss of intra-epidermal innervation, may be found without sensory loss on quantitative testing in clinically-unaffected skin in leprosy; this appears to be a sub-clinical change, and may explain the lack of cutaneous pain with inflammation. Sensory loss occurred with reduced sub-epidermal nerve fibres in affected skin, but these still showed trk A-staining, suggesting NGF treatment may restore pain sensation.
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Document Type: Abstract

Affiliations: Pain 85: 231–238, 2000. Reprinted with permission from the International Association for the Study of Pain.

Publication date: December 1, 2000

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