Impact of behavioral control on the processing of nociceptive stimulation. Academic Article uri icon


  • How nociceptive signals are processed within the spinal cord, and whether these signals lead to behavioral signs of neuropathic pain, depends upon their relation to other events and behavior. Our work shows that these relations can have a lasting effect on spinal plasticity, inducing a form of learning that alters the effect of subsequent nociceptive stimuli. The capacity of lower spinal systems to adapt, in the absence of brain input, is examined in spinally transected rats that receive a nociceptive shock to the tibialis anterior muscle of one hind leg. If shock is delivered whenever the leg is extended (controllable stimulation), it induces an increase in flexion duration that minimizes net shock exposure. This learning is not observed in subjects that receive the same amount of shock independent of leg position (uncontrollable stimulation). These two forms of stimulation have a lasting, and divergent, effect on subsequent learning: controllable stimulation enables learning whereas uncontrollable stimulation disables it (learning deficit). Uncontrollable stimulation also enhances mechanical reactivity. We review evidence that training with controllable stimulation engages a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)-dependent process that can both prevent and reverse the consequences of uncontrollable shock. We relate these effects to changes in BDNF protein and TrkB signaling. Controllable stimulation is also shown to counter the effects of peripheral inflammation (from intradermal capsaicin). A model is proposed that assumes nociceptive input is gated at an early sensory stage. This gate is sensitive to current environmental relations (between proprioceptive and nociceptive input), allowing stimulation to be classified as controllable or uncontrollable. We further propose that the status of this gate is affected by past experience and that a history of uncontrollable stimulation will promote the development of neuropathic pain.

published proceedings

  • Front Physiol

author list (cited authors)

  • Grau, J. W., Huie, J. R., Garraway, S. M., Hook, M. A., Crown, E. D., Baumbauer, K. M., ... Ferguson, A. R.

citation count

  • 37

complete list of authors

  • Grau, James W||Huie, J Russell||Garraway, Sandra M||Hook, Michelle A||Crown, Eric D||Baumbauer, Kyle M||Lee, Kuan H||Hoy, Kevin C||Ferguson, Adam R

publication date

  • September 2012