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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Effects of estrogens and bladder inflammation on mitogen-activated protein kinases in lumbosacral dorsal root ganglia from adult female rats

Ying Cheng and Janet R Keast*

Author Affiliations

Pain Management Research Institute, Kolling Institute of Medical Research, University of Sydney at Royal North Shore Hospital, St Leonards NSW 2065, Australia

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:156  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-156

Published: 28 December 2009



Interstitial cystitis is a chronic condition associated with bladder inflammation and, like a number of other chronic pain states, symptoms associated with interstitial cystitis are more common in females and fluctuate during the menstrual cycle. The aim of this study was to determine if estrogens could directly modulate signalling pathways within bladder sensory neurons, such as extracellular signal-related kinase (ERK) and p38 mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases. These signalling pathways have been implicated in neuronal plasticity underlying development of inflammatory somatic pain but have not been as extensively investigated in visceral nociceptors. We have focused on lumbosacral dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons projecting to pelvic viscera (L1, L2, L6, S1) of adult female Sprague-Dawley rats and performed both in vitro and in vivo manipulations to compare the effects of short- and long-term changes in estrogen levels on MAPK expression and activation. We have also investigated if prolonged estrogen deprivation influences the effects of lower urinary tract inflammation on MAPK signalling.


In studies of isolated DRG neurons in short-term (overnight) culture, we found that estradiol and estrogen receptor (ER) agonists rapidly stimulated ER-dependent p38 phosphorylation relative to total p38. Examination of DRGs following chronic estrogen deprivation in vivo (ovariectomy) showed a parallel increase in total and phosphorylated p38 (relative to β-tubulin). We also observed an increase in ERK1 phosphorylation (relative to total ERK1), but no change in ERK1 expression (relative to β-tubulin). We observed no change in ERK2 expression or phosphorylation. Although ovariectomy increased the level of phosphorylated ERK1 (vs. total ERK1), cyclophosphamide-induced lower urinary tract inflammation did not cause a net increase of either ERK1 or ERK2, or their phosphorylation. Inflammation did, however, cause an increase in p38 protein levels, relative to β-tubulin. Prior ovariectomy did not alter the response to inflammation.


These results provide new insights into the complex effects of estrogens on bladder nociceptor signalling. The diversity of estrogen actions in these ganglia raises the possibility of developing new ways to modulate their function in pelvic hyperactivity or pain states.