Peripheral capsaicin treatment induces molecular changes that sensitize the responses of nociceptive neurons in the spinal dorsal horn. The current studies demonstrate that capsaicin also undermines the adaptive plasticity of the spinal cord, rendering the system incapable of learning a simple instrumental task. In these studies, male rats are transected at the second thoracic vertebra and are tested 24 to 48 hours later. During testing, subjects receive shock to one hindleg when it is extended (controllable stimulation). Rats quickly learn to maintain the leg in a flexed position. Rats that have been injected with capsaicin (1 % or 3%) in the hindpaw fail to learn, even when tested on the leg contralateral to the injection. This learning deficit lasts at least 24 hours. Interestingly, training with controllable electrical stimulation prior to capsaicin administration protects the spinal cord against the maladaptive effects. Rats pretrained with controllable stimulation do not display a learning deficit or tactile allodynia. Moreover, controllable stimulation, combined with naltrexone, reverses the capsaicin-induced deficit. These data suggest that peripheral inflammation, accompanying spinal cord injuries, might have an adverse effect on recovery
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