Neurotransmitters in nociceptive modulatory circuits

Howard L. Fields, Mary M. Heinricher, Peggy Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

178 Scopus citations


Significant advances have been made in our understanding of nociceptive modulation from RVM. Among the most useful conceptually has been the discovery that there are two classes of modulatory neurons in the RVM that are likely to have opposing actions on nociception: on-cells, which may facilitate nociceptive transmission, and off-cells, which probably have a net inhibitory effect on nociception. The similarity in response properties among the members of each class, their large, somatic 'receptive fields,' and the wide distribution of the terminal fields of axons of individual neurons to the trigeminal sensory complex and to multiple spinal segments indicate that these neurons exert a global influence over nociceptive responsiveness. Drug microinjections into the RVM presumably shift the balance between states of on- or off-cell firing and also produce measurable changes in the threshold for nocifensor reflexes. The meaningful unit of function in the RVM nociceptive modulatory system therefore probably consists of large ensembles of physiologically and pharmacologically similar neurons. The strong coordination of activity of the two classes of RVM neuron may depend largely upon intranuclear projections from RVM off-cells that excite other off-cells and inhibit on-cells. The off-cell pause is GABA-mediated, and it is likely that there is a subset of GABA-containing RVM on-cells that directly inhibit off-cells. Furthermore, the available evidence indicates that exogenous opiates activate off-cells by inhibiting GABAergic release. Presubably, enkephalinergic cells in the RVM disinhibit off-cells in a similar way. Although non-serotonin-containing off-cells certainly exist, we propose that some off-cells contain serotonin. Other possible connections are based on more limited data; however, ACh, neurotensin, NE, and EAAs are present in neurons that project to the RVM, and each of these compounds, when microinjected into the RVM, has a modulating effect on nociceptive transmission. The local circuits in the RVM that underlie these actions remain to be elucidated. At the level of the dorsal horn, there is good evidence for each of three inhibitory mechanisms: direct inhibition of nociceptive projection neurons, inhibition of excitatory relay interneurons, and excitation of an inhibitory interneuron. The relative contribution made by each of these circuits is unknown. In contrast to the extensive body of information that we have concerning the dorsal horn mechanisms underlying inhibition, we have no information about how the RVM facilitates nociceptive transmission at the level of the dorsal horn, because the research to date on nociceptive modulation has been carried out within a conceptual framework in which the modulatory outflow from the RVM has only inhibitory effects on nociceptive transmission. Future studies must address the issue of the pharmacology and dorsal horn circuitry underlying the facilitation of nociception.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-245
Number of pages27
JournalAnnual Review of Neuroscience
StatePublished - 1991
Externally publishedYes


  • Analgesia
  • Endogenous opioid peptide
  • GABA
  • Norepinephrine
  • Pain
  • Serotonin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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