Low-threshold mechanoreceptors play a frequency-dependent dual role in subjective ratings of mechanical allodynia.
Löken LS., Duff EP., Tracey I.
In the setting of injury, myelinated primary afferent fibers that normally signal light touch are thought to switch modality and instead signal pain. In the absence of injury, touch is perceived as more intense when firing rates of Aβ afferents increase. However, it is not known if varying the firing rates of Aβ afferents have any consequence to the perception of dynamic mechanical allodynia (DMA). We hypothesized that, in the setting of injury, the unpleasantness of DMA would be intensified as the firing rates of Aβ afferents increase. Using a stimulus-response protocol established in normal skin, where an increase in brush velocity results in an increase of Aβ afferent firing rates, we tested if brush velocity modulated the unpleasantness of capsaicin-induced DMA. We analyzed how changes in estimated low-threshold mechanoreceptor firing activity influenced perception and brain activity (functional MRI) of DMA. Brushing on normal skin was perceived as pleasant, but brushing on sensitized skin produced both painful and pleasant sensations. Surprisingly, there was an inverse relationship between Aβ firing rates and unpleasantness such that brush stimuli that produced low firing rates were most painful and those that elicited high firing rates were rated as pleasant. Concurrently to this, we found increased cortical activity in response to low Aβ firing rates in regions previously implicated in pain processing during brushing of sensitized skin, but not normal skin. We suggest that Aβ signals do not merely switch modality to signal pain during injury. Instead, they exert a high- and low-frequency-dependent dual role in the injured state, with respectively both pleasant and unpleasant consequences. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We suggest that Aβ signals do not simply switch modality to signal pain during injury but play a frequency-dependent and dual role in the injured state with both pleasant and unpleasant consequences. These results provide a framework to resolve the apparent paradox of how touch can inhibit pain, as proposed by the Gate Control Theory and the existence of dynamic mechanical allodynia.