The extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway has been reported to play a pivotal role in mediating spinal cord injury (SCI) progression. The present study aimed to investigate the effects of phosphorylated ERK1/2 (p-ERK1/2) inhibition on SCI-induced astrocyte activation and inflammation and its possible mechanism in rats. Here, female Sprague-Dawley rats were randomly assigned to four groups: (1) Sham group, (2) SCI group, (3) TGN-020 group (aquaporin-4, AQP4, blocking agent), (4) PD98059 group (ERK blocking agent). A well SCI model was established by compressing the thoracic vertebra 10 level (weight 35 g, time 5 min) in rats. Western blotting and immunofluorescence staining were used to measure the expression of associated proteins after SCI. HE staining and Nissl staining were performed to detect the morphological changes of spinal cords and the number of surviving neurons following SCI, respectively. The Basso-Beattie-Bresnahan open-field rating scale was used to evaluate functional locomotor recovery following SCI in rats. Our results demonstrated that SCI significantly induced the upregulation of aquaporin-4, p-ERK1/2, glial fibrillary acidic protein, proliferating cell nuclear antigen, and proinflammatory cytokines (tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-6 and interleukin-1β). However, treatment with TGN-020 or PD98059 could effectively inhibit astrocyte proliferation and proinflammatory cytokine release, preserve the number of surviving ventral horn neurons, and subsequently improve the locomotor function of rats after SCI. Interestingly, the SCI-induced elevation of AQP4 expression was downregulated by p-ERK1/2 inhibition, suggesting that blocking ERK1/2 phosphorylation could attenuate astrocyte activation and inflammatory processes through negative regulation of AQP4. Therefore, p-ERK1/2 blockade may be employed as a therapeutic target for SCI.
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