Glucocorticoid hormones as modulators of the kynurenine pathway in chronic pain conditions


Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center


The pathogenesis of chronic pain entails a series of complex interactions among the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Defined as pain lasting or recurring for more than 3 months, chronic pain is becoming increasingly more prevalent among the US adult population. Pro-inflammatory cytokines from persistent low-grade inflammation not only contribute to the development of chronic pain conditions, but also regulate various aspects of the tryptophan metabolism, especially that of the kynurenine pathway (KP). An elevated level of pro-inflammatory cytokines exerts similar regulatory effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, an intricate system of neuro-endocrine-immune pathways and a major mechanism of the stress response. As the HPA axis counters inflammation through the secretion of endogenous cortisol, we review the role of cortisol along with that of exogenous glucocorticoids in patients with chronic pain conditions. Considering that different metabolites produced along the KP exhibit neuroprotective, neurotoxic, and pronociceptive properties, we also summarize evidence rendering them as reliable biomarkers in this patient population. While more in vivo studies are needed, we conclude that the interaction between glucocorticoid hormones and the KP poses an attractive venue of diagnostic and therapeutic potential in patients with chronic pain.



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