Capsaicin is an agonist of transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TRPV1). Strong TRPV1 stimulation with capsaicin causes mitochondrial damage in primary sensory neurons. However, the effect of repetitive and moderate exposure to capsaicin on the integrity of neuronal mitochondria remains largely unknown. Our electron microscopic analysis revealed that repetitive stimulation of the facial skin of mice with 10 mM capsaicin induced short-term damage to the mitochondria in small-sized trigeminal ganglion neurons. Further, capsaicin-treated mice exhibited decreased sensitivity to noxious heat stimulation, indicating TRPV1 dysfunction, in parallel with the mitochondrial damage in the trigeminal ganglion neurons. To analyze the capsaicin-induced mitochondrial damage and its relevant cellular events in detail, we performed cell-based assays using TRPV1-expressing PC12 cells. Dose-dependent capsaicin-mediated mitochondrial toxicity was observed. High doses of capsaicin caused rapid destruction of mitochondrial internal structure, while low doses induced mitochondrial swelling. Further, capsaicin induced a dose-dependent loss of mitochondria and autophagy-mediated degradation of mitochondria (mitophagy). Concomitantly, transcriptional upregulation of mitochondrial proteins, cytochrome c oxidase subunit IV, Mic60/Mitofilin, and voltage-dependent anion channel 1 was observed, which implied induction of mitochondrial biogenesis to compensate for the loss of mitochondria. Collectively, although trigeminal ganglion neurons transiently exhibit mitochondrial damage and TRPV1 dysfunction following moderate capsaicin exposure, they appear to be resilient to such a challenge. Our in vitro data show a dose–response relationship in capsaicin-mediated mitochondrial toxicity. We postulate that induction of mitophagy and mitochondrial biogenesis in response to capsaicin stimulation play important roles in repairing the damaged mitochondrial system.
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