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Neural Processing of Pain and Itch  

Taylor Follansbee, Mirela Iodi Carstens, and E. Carstens

Pain is defined as “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage,” while itch can be defined as “an unpleasant sensation that evokes the desire to scratch.” These sensations are normally elicited by noxious or pruritic stimuli that excite peripheral sensory neurons connected to spinal circuits and ascending pathways involved in sensory discrimination, emotional aversiveness, and respective motor responses. Specialized molecular receptors expressed by cutaneous nerve endings transduce stimuli into action potentials conducted by C- and Aδ-fiber nociceptors and pruriceptors into the outer lamina of the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Here, neurons selectively activated by nociceptors, or by convergent input from nociceptors, pruriceptors, and often mechanoreceptors, transmit signals to ascending spinothalamic and spinoparabrachial pathways. The spinal circuitry for itch requires interneurons expressing gastrin-releasing peptide and its receptor, while spinal pain circuitry involves other excitatory neuropeptides; both itch and pain are transmitted by ascending pathways that express the receptor for substance P. Spinal itch- and pain-transmitting circuitry is segmentally modulated by inhibitory interneurons expressing dynorphin, GABA, and glycine, which mediate the antinociceptive and antipruritic effects of noxious counterstimulation. Spinal circuits are also under descending modulation from the brainstem rostral ventromedial medulla. Opioids like morphine inhibit spinal pain-transmitting circuits segmentally and via descending inhibitory pathways, while having the opposite effect on itch. The supraspinal targets of ascending pain and itch pathways exhibit extensive overlap and include the somatosensory thalamus, parabrachial nucleus, amygdala, periaqueductal gray, and somatosensory, anterior cingulate, insular, and supplementary motor cortical areas. Following tissue injury, enhanced pain is evoked near the injury (primary hyperalgesia) due to release of inflammatory mediators that sensitize nociceptors. Within a larger surrounding area of secondary hyperalgesia, innocuous mechanical stimuli elicit pain (allodynia) due to central sensitization of pain pathways. Pruriceptors can also become sensitized in pathophysiological conditions, such as dermatitis. Under chronic itch conditions, low-threshold tactile stimulation can elicit itch (alloknesis), presumably due to central sensitization of itch pathways, although this has not been extensively studied. There is considerable overlap in pain- and itch-signaling pathways and it remains unclear how these sensations are discriminated. Specificity theory states that itch and pain are separate sensations with their own distinct pathways (“labeled lines”). Selectivity theory is similar but incorporates the observation that pruriceptive neurons are also excited by algogenic stimuli that inhibit spinal itch transmission. In contrast, intensity theory states that itch is signaled by low firing rates, and pain by high firing rates, in a common sensory pathway. Finally, the spatial contrast theory proposes that itch is elicited by focal activation of a few nociceptors while activation of more nociceptors over a larger area elicits pain. There is evidence supporting each theory, and it remains to be determined how the nervous system distinguishes between pain and itch.


Vision and Art  

Bevil R. Conway

The premise of the field of vision and art is that studies of visual processing can inform an understanding of visual art and artistic practice, and a close reading of art, art history, and art practice can help generate hypotheses about how vision works. Paraphrasing David Hubel, visual neurobiology can enhance art just as knowledge of bones and muscles has for centuries informed artistic representations of the body. The umbrella of visual art encompasses a bewildering diversity of works. A focus on 2-dimensional artworks provides an introduction to the field. For each of the steps taken by the visual brain to turn retinal images into perception, one can ask how the biology informs one’s understanding of visual art, how visual artists have exploited aspects of how the brain processes visual information, and what the strategies deployed by visual artists reveal about neural mechanisms of vision.


The Processing of Hydrodynamic Stimuli With the Fish Lateral Line System  

Joachim Mogdans

All fish have a mechanosensory lateral line system for the detection of hydrodynamic stimuli. It is thus not surprising that the lateral line system is involved in numerous behaviors, including obstacle avoidance, localization of predators and prey, social communication, and orientation in laminar and turbulent flows. The sensory units of the lateral line system are the neuromasts, which occur freestanding on the skin (superficial neuromasts) and within subdermal canals (canal neuromasts). The canals are in contact with the surrounding water through a series of canal pores. Neuromasts consist of a patch of sensory hair cells covered by a gelatinous cupula. Water flow causes cupula motion, which in turn leads to a change in the hair cells’ receptor potentials and a subsequent change in the firing rate of the innervating afferent nerve fibers. These fibers encode velocity, direction, and vorticity of water motions by means of spike trains. They project predominantly to lateral line neurons in the brainstem for further processing of the received hydrodynamic signals. From the brainstem, lateral line information is transferred to the cerebellum and to midbrain and forebrain nuclei, where lateral line information is integrated with information from other sensory modalities to create a three-dimensional image of the hydrodynamic world surrounding the animal. For fish to determine spatial location and identity of a wave source as well as direction and velocity of water movements, the lateral line system must analyze the various types of hydrodynamic stimuli that fish are exposed to in their natural habitat. Natural hydrodynamic stimuli include oscillatory water motions generated by stationary vibratory sources, such as by small crustaceans; complex water motions produced by animate or inanimate moving objects, such as by swimming fish; bulk water flow in rivers and streams; and water flow containing vortices generated at the edges of objects in a water flow. To uncover the mechanisms that underlie the coding of hydrodynamic information by the lateral line system, neurophysiological experiments have been performed at the level of the primary afferent nerve fibers, but also in the central nervous system, predominantly in the brainstem and midbrain, using sinusoidally vibrating spheres, moving objects, vortex rings, bulk water flow, and Kármán vortex streets as wave sources. Unravelling these mechanisms is fundamental to understanding how the fish brain uses hydrodynamic information to adequately guide behavior.