Distinct signal transduction pathways have been shown to regulate injury responses and regeneration in peripheral nerves. In the present investigation, the time courses of the induction of phospho-MAPK/ERK1/2 and of phospho-STAT3 were investigated in the dorsal root ganglia (DRG) and in the sciatic nerve of rats following a systemic capsaicin treatment without or with concomitant intraplantar NGF injections. Western blots were probed with polyclonal antibodies that specifically detect phosphorylated ERK 1/2 and STAT3. Phosphorylation of ERK clearly peaked in the sciatic nerve and in the lumbar DRGs at 6 and 10 h after the capsaicin treatment. In the following 8 days phospho-ERK decreased to very low levels and was found recovered to basal values at the time point 16 days. An additional intraplantar nerve growth factor (NGF) injection at time points 20, 44 and 92 h after the capsaicin treatment, and collection of tissues 4 h later, markedly increased the level of phospho-ERK in the sciatic nerve as well as in the DRG, as compared to the samples taken from rats at the same time points with a capsaicin treatment only. Posphorylated STAT3, which was almost non-detectable in the control sciatic nerve, clearly peaked at 6 h after the capsaicin treatment and decreased again during the following days to almost undetectable levels. The intraplantar NGF injections slightly stimulated phosho-STAT3 in the sciatic nerve. A basal level of phosphorylated STAT3 was present in DRGs of control animals, it remained at a high level up to 6 h after the capsaicin treatment, then markedly decreased and recovered on day 8 and day 16. NGF increased STAT3 phosphorylation in DRG on day 1 and day 2 above the level observed in samples taken from rats at the same time points with a capsaicin treatment only. The present study demonstrates that a capsaicin impairment of small diameter primary sensory neurons followed by an NGF treatment evokes a characteristic pattern of ERK and STAT3 activation indicative of neuronal degeneration and regeneration.

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