Gut microbiota, a consortium of diverse microorganisms residing in the gastrointestinal tract, has emerged as a key player in neuroinflammatory responses, supporting the functional relevance of the “gut–brain axis.” Chronic-constriction injury of the sciatic nerve (CCI) is a commonly used animal model of neuropathic pain with a major input from T cell–mediated immune responses. In this article, we sought to examine whether gut microbiota influences CCI neuropathic pain, and, if so, whether T-cell immune responses are implicated.
We used a mixture of wide-spectrum oral antibiotics to perturbate gut microbiota in mice and then performed CCI in these animals. Nociceptive behaviors, including mechanical allodynia and thermal hyperalgesia, were examined before and after CCI. Additionally, we characterized the spinal cord infiltrating T cells by examining interferon (IFN)-γ, interleukin (IL)-17, and Foxp3. Using a Foxp3-GFP-DTR “knock-in” mouse model that allows punctual depletion of regulatory T cells, we interrogated the role of these cells in mediating the effects of gut microbiota in the context of CCI neuropathic pain.
We found that oral antibiotics induced gut microbiota changes and attenuated the development of CCI neuropathic pain, as demonstrated by dampened mechanical allodynia and thermal hyperalgesia. Percentages of IFN-γ–producing Th1 cells and Foxp3+ regulatory T cells were significantly different between animals that received oral antibiotics (Th1 mean = 1.0, 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.9–1.2; Foxp3 mean = 8.1, 95% CI, 6.8–9.3) and those that received regular water (Th1 mean = 8.4, 95% CI, 7.8–9.0, P < .01 oral antibiotics versus water, Cohen’s d = 18.8; Foxp 3 mean = 2.8, 95% CI, 2.2–3.3, P < .01 oral antibiotics versus water, Cohen’s d = 6.2). These T cells characterized a skewing from a proinflammatory to an anti-inflammatory immune profile induced by gut microbiota changes. Moreover, we depleted Foxp3+ regulatory T cells and found that their depletion reversed the protection of neuropathic pain mediated by gut microbiota changes, along with a dramatic increase of IFN-γ–producing Th1 cell infiltration in the spinal cord (before depletion mean = 2.8%, 95% CI, 2.2–3.5; after depletion mean = 9.1%, 95% CI, 7.2–11.0, p < .01 before versus after, Cohen’s d = 5.0).
Gut microbiota plays a critical role in CCI neuropathic pain. This role is mediated, in part, through modulating proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory T cells.