The Journal of comparative neurology

Genetically expressed transneuronal tracer reveals direct and indirect serotonergic descending control circuits.

PMID 18273889


Despite the evidence for a significant contribution of brainstem serotonergic (5HT) systems to the control of spinal cord "pain" transmission neurons, attention has turned recently to the influence of nonserotonergic neurons, including the facilitatory and inhibitory controls that originate from so-called "on" and "off" cells of the rostroventral medulla (RVM). Unclear, however, is the extent to which these latter circuits interact with or are influenced by the serotonergic cell groups. To address this question we selectively targeted expression of a transneuronal tracer, wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), in the 5HT neurons so as to study the interplay between the 5HT and non-5HT systems. In addition to confirming the direct medullary 5HT projection to the spinal cord we also observed large numbers of non-5HT neurons, in the medullary nucleus reticularis gigantocellularis and magnocellularis, that were WGA-immunoreactive, i.e., were transneuronally labeled from 5HT neurons. FluoroGold injections into the spinal cord established that these reticular neurons are not only postsynaptic to the 5HT neurons of the medulla, but that most are also at the origin of descending, bulbospinal pathways. By contrast, we found no evidence that neurons of the midbrain periaqueductal gray that project to the RVM are postsynaptic to midbrain or medullary 5HT neurons. Finally, we found very few examples of WGA-immunoreactive noradrenergic neurons, which suggests that there is considerable independence of the monoaminergic bulbospinal pathways. Our results indicate that 5HT neurons influence "pain" processing at the spinal cord level both directly and indirectly via feedforward connections with multiple non-5HT descending control pathways.