Background & Aims: Chronic stress exacerbates or causes relapse of symptoms such as abdominal pain and cramping in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. We investigated whether chronic stress increases plasma norepinephrine and sensitizes colon-specific dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons by increasing expression of nerve growth factor (NGF) in the colon wall. Methods: Heterotypic chronic stress (HeCS) was applied to male Wistar rats and neurologic and molecular responses were analyzed. Tissues were analyzed for NGF expression. Results: HeCS significantly increased visceromoter response to colorectal distension; expression of NGF increased in colonic muscularis externa and mucosa/submucosa. Rheobase decreased, resting membrane potential was depolarized, and electrogenesis of action potentials increased in colon-specific thoracolumbar DRG neurons. Luminal administration of resiniferatoxin in distal colon, systemic administration of anti-NGF antibody, or inhibition of the NGF receptor trkA by k252a or antisense oligonucleotides in thoracolumbar DRG blocked the chronic stress-induced visceral hypersensitivity to colorectal distension. Blockade of α1/α2- and β1/β2-adrenergic receptors prevented the stress-induced visceral hypersensitivity and increased expression of NGF in the colon wall. HeCS did not induce any inflammatory response in the colon wall. Conclusions: The peripheral stress mediator norepinephrine induces visceral hypersensitivity to colorectal distension in response to HeCS by increasing the expression of NGF in the colon wall, which sensitizes primary afferents in the absence of an inflammatory response.
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