Sensitization, desensitization and stimulus-induced recovery of trigeminal neuronal responses to oral capsaicin and nicotine

J. M. Dessirier, C. T. Simons, M. Sudo, S. Sudo, Earl Carstens

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49 Scopus citations


Repeated application of capsaicin at a 1-min interstimulus interval (ISI) to the tongue induces a progressively increasing irritant sensation (sensitization), followed after a rest period by reduced sensitivity to further capsaicin (desensitization). Sequential reapplication of capsaicin induces irritation that eventually increases to initial levels: stimulus-induced recovery (SIR). In contrast, repeated application of nicotine elicits a declining irritant sensation across trials. To investigate possible neural correlates of these phenomena, we recorded from single units in superficial laminae of the dorsomedial trigeminal subnucleus caudalis (Vc) that responded to noxious thermal (54°C) and chemical (1 M pentanoic acid) stimulation of the tongue of anesthetized rats. We then recorded responses to either capsaicin (330 μM) or nicotine (0.6 M), delivered either once, repeatedly at 1-min ISI, or continually by constant flow. After the initial capsaicin application and a rest period, the capsaicin was reapplied in the identical manner to test for SIR. The mean response of 14 Vc units to sequential application of pentanoic acid did not vary significantly across trials, indicating lack of tachyphylaxis or sensitization. The averaged response of 11 Vc units to repeated capsaicin increased significantly across the first eight trials and then plateaued. Following the rest period, spontaneous firing had returned to the precapsaicin level. With capsaicin reapplication, the averaged response increased again after a significant delay (due to desensitization), but did not reattain the peak firing rate achieved in the initial series (partial SIR). Constant-flow application of capsaicin induced an identical sensitization followed by nearly complete SIR. A single application of capsaicin induced a significant rise in firing in eight other units, but the rate of rise and maximal firing rate were both much lower compared with repetitive or constant-flow capsaicin. When capsaicin was reapplied once after the rest period, there was no change in firing rate indicating absence of SIR. These results indicate that maintenance of the capsaicin concentration induces a progressive increase in neuronal response that parallels sensitization. With recurrent capsaicin application, desensitization can be overcome to result in a delayed recovery of Vc responses similar to SIR. In contrast, the averaged response of 17 Vc units to repeated or constant-flow application of nicotine increased only over the first 3 min, and then decreased to spontaneous levels even as nicotine was still being applied. These results are consistent with the decrease in the perceived irritation elicited by sequential application of nicotine in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1851-1862
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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