Zhao ZQ*, Huo FQ*, Jeffry J, Hampton L, Demehri S, Kim S, Liu XY, Barry DM, Wan L, Liu ZC, Li H, Turkoz A, Ma K, Cornelius LA, Kopan R, Battey, JF Jr., Zhong J and Chen ZF. (*equal contribution) . J Clin Invest. 2013; 123(11):4769–4780
Chronic itch, or pruritus, is associated with a wide range of skin abnormalities. The mechanisms responsible for chronic itch induction and persistence remain unclear. We developed a mouse model in which a constitutively active form of the serine/threonine kinase BRAF was expressed in neurons gated by the sodium channel Nav1.8 (BRAFNav1.8 mice). We found that constitutive BRAF pathway activation in BRAFNav1.8 mice results in ectopic and enhanced expression of a cohort of itch-sensing genes, including gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) and MAS-related GPCR member A3 (MRGPRA3), in nociceptors expressing transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 (TRPV1). BRAFNav1.8 mice showed de novo neuronal responsiveness to pruritogens, enhanced pruriceptor excitability, and heightened evoked and spontaneous scratching behavior. GRP receptor expression was increased in the spinal cord, indicating augmented coding capacity for itch subsequent to amplified pruriceptive inputs. Enhanced GRP expression and sustained ERK phosphorylation were observed in sensory neurons of mice with allergic contact dermatitis– or dry skin–elicited itch; however, spinal ERK activation was not required for maintaining central sensitization of itch. Inhibition of either BRAF or GRP signaling attenuated itch sensation in chronic itch mouse models. These data uncover RAF/MEK/ERK signaling as a key regulator that confers a subset of nociceptors with pruriceptive properties to initiate and maintain long-lasting itch sensation.