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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.


Auditory Hair Cells and Sensory Transduction  

Jeffrey R. Holt and Gwenaëlle S.G. Géléoc

The organs of the vertebrate inner ear respond to a variety of mechanical stimuli: semicircular canals are sensitive to angular velocity, the saccule and utricle respond to linear acceleration (including gravity), and the cochlea is sensitive to airborne vibration, or sound. The ontogenically related lateral line organs, spaced along the sides of aquatic vertebrates, sense water movement. All these organs have a common receptor cell type, which is called the hair cell, for the bundle of enlarged microvilli protruding from its apical surface. In different organs, specialized accessory structures serve to collect, filter, and then deliver these physical stimuli to the hair bundles. The proximal stimulus for all hair cells is deflection of the mechanosensitive hair bundle. Hair cells convert mechanical information contained within the temporal pattern of hair bundle deflections into electrical signals, which they transmit to the brain for interpretation.


Molecular Biology of Vertebrate Olfactory Receptors and Circuits  

Richard P. Tucker and Qizhi Gong

Animals use their olfactory system for the procurement of food, the detection of danger, and the identification of potential mates. In vertebrates, the olfactory sensory neuron has a single apical dendrite that is exposed to the environment and a single basal axon that projects to the central nervous system (i.e., the olfactory bulb). The first odorant receptors to be discovered belong to an enormous gene family encoding G protein-coupled seven transmembrane domain proteins. Odorant binding to these classical odorant receptors initiates a GTP-dependent signaling cascade that uses cAMP as a second messenger. Subsequently, additional types of odorant receptors using different signaling pathways have been identified. While most olfactory sensory neurons are found in the olfactory sensory neuroepithelium, others are found in specialized olfactory subsystems. In rodents, the vomeronasal organ contains neurons that recognize pheromones, the septal organ recognizes odorant and mechanical stimuli, and the neurons of the Grüneberg ganglion are sensitive to cool temperatures and certain volatile alarm signals. Within the olfactory sensory neuroepithelium, each sensory neuron expresses a single odorant receptor gene out of the large gene family; the axons of sensory neurons expressing the same odorant receptor typically converge onto a pair of glomeruli at the periphery of the olfactory bulb. This results in the transformation of olfactory information into a spatially organized odortopic map in the olfactory bulb. The axons originating from the vomeronasal organ project to the accessory olfactory bulb, whereas the axons from neurons in the Grüneberg ganglion project to 10 specific glomeruli found in the caudal part of the olfactory bulb. Within a glomerulus, the axons originating from olfactory sensory neurons synapse on the dendrites of olfactory bulb neurons, including mitral and tufted cells. Mitral cells and tufted cells in turn project directly to higher brain centers (e.g., the piriform cortex and olfactory tubercle). The integration of olfactory information in the olfactory cortices and elsewhere in the central nervous system informs and directs animal behavior.


Neural Mechanisms for Odor-Guided Behavior  

Giuliano Gaeta, Regina M. Sullivan, and Donald A. Wilson

Odor- or chemical-guided behavior is expressed in all species. Such behavioral responses to odors begin with transduction at olfactory receptors and, after initial processing in early stages of the olfactory system (e.g., vertebrate olfactory bulb, invertebrate antennal lobe), the information is rapidly (within one to two synapses) distributed to diverse brain regions controlling hedonics, metabolic balance, mating, and spatial navigation, among many other basic functions. Odors can not only drive or guide specific behavioral responses but can also modulate behavioral choices and affective state, in many cases in humans without conscious awareness. Many of the specific neural circuits underlying odor-guided behaviors have been partially described, though much remains unknown. Neural processes underlying odor-guided reward and aversion, kin recognition, feeding, orientation, and navigation across diverse species have been discussed, as well as odor modulation of human behavior and emotion.


Olfactory Perception  

Daniel W. Wesson, Sang Eun Ryu, and Hillary L. Cansler

The perception of odors exerts powerful influences on moods, decisions, and actions. Indeed, odor perception is a major driving force underlying some of the most important human behaviors. How is it that the simple inhalation of airborne molecules can exert such strong effects on complex aspects of human functions? Certainly, just like in the case of vision and audition, the perception of odors is dictated by the ability to transduce environmental information into an electrical “code” for the brain to use. However, the use of that information, including whether or not the information is used at all, is governed strongly by many emotional and cognitive factors, including learning and experiences, as well as states of arousal and attention. Understanding the manners whereby these factors regulate both the perception of odors and how an individual responds to those percepts are paramount for appreciating the orchestration of behavior.


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.


Taste Buds and Gustatory Transduction: A Functional Perspective  

Alan C. Spector and Susan P. Travers

Everything a person swallows must pass a final chemical analysis by the sensory systems of the mouth; of these, the gustatory system is cardinal. Gustation can be heuristically divided into three basic domains of function: sensory-discriminative (quality and intensity), motivational/affective (promote or deter ingestion), and physiological (e.g., salivation and insulin release). The signals from the taste buds, transmitted to the brain through the sensory branches of cranial nerves VII (facial), IX (glossopharyngeal), and X (vagal), subserve these primary functions. Taste buds are collections of 50–100 cells that are distributed in various fields in the tongue, soft palate, and throat. There are three types of cells that have been identified in taste buds based on their morphological and cytochemical expression profiles. Type II cells express specialized G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR or GPR) on their apical membranes, which protrude through a break in the oral epithelial lining called the taste pore, that are responsible for the sensing of sweeteners (via the taste type 1 receptor (T1R) 2 + T1R3), amino acids (via the T1R1+T1R3), and bitter ligands (via the taste type 2 receptors (T2Rs)). Type III cells are critical for the sensing of acids via the otopetrin-1 (Otop-1) ion channel. The sensing of sodium, in at least rodents, occurs through the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC), but the exact composition of this channel and the type of taste cell type in which the functional version resides remains unclear. It is controversial whether Type I cells, which have been characterized as glial-like, are involved in sodium transduction or play any taste signaling role. For the most part, receptors for different stimulus classes (e.g., sugars vs. bitter ligands) are not co-expressed, providing significant early functionally related segregation of signals. There remains a persistent search for yet to be identified receptors that may contribute to some functions associated with stimuli representing the so-called basic taste qualities—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami—as well as unconventional stimuli such as fatty acids (in addition to cluster of differentiation-36 (CD-36), GPR40, and GPR120) and maltodextrins. The primary neurotransmitter in taste receptor cells is ATP, which is released through a voltage-gated heteromeric channel consisting of the calcium homeostasis modulator 1 and 3 (CALHM1/3) and binds with P2X2/X3 receptors on apposed afferent fibers. Serotonin released from Type III cells has been implicated as an additional neurotransmitter, binding with HT3a receptors, and possibly playing a role in acid taste (which is sour to humans). Taste bud cells undergo complete turnover about every two weeks. Although there remains much to be understood about the operations of the taste bud, perhaps the one very clear principle that emerges is that the organization of signals transmitted to the brain is not random and arbitrary to be decoded by complex algorithms in the circuits of the central gustatory system. Rather, the transmission of taste information from the periphery is highly ordered.


Synesthesia and Sensory Processing  

Louisa J. Rinaldi

Synesthesia is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes 4.4% of the population to experience the world differently. For these individuals certain stimuli (e.g., letters of the alphabet) trigger a secondary experience (e.g., color perception). This process is automatic and remains consistent over time. Tests for measuring synesthesia have successfully built on this principle of synesthetic associations being consistent over time, and using this method a number of studies have investigated the heritability of the condition, cognitive differences that synesthetes have compared with non-synesthetes, and the neurological architecture of synesthete brains. These measures have largely focused on adult synesthetes for whom the condition is already fully developed. Since 2009 researchers have begun to also investigate childhood synesthesia, which has helped to advance our understanding of how this condition emerges. Drawing on both adult and child studies, we can better understand the neurological and cognitive implications of a lifetime of experiencing synesthetic associations.


Neural Population Coding of Natural Sounds in Non-flying Mammals  

Israel Nelken

Understanding the principles by which sensory systems represent natural stimuli is one of the holy grails of neuroscience. In the auditory system, the study of the coding of natural sounds has a particular prominence. Indeed, the relationships between neural responses to simple stimuli (usually pure tone bursts)—often used to characterize auditory neurons—and complex sounds (in particular natural sounds) may be complex. Many different classes of natural sounds have been used to study the auditory system. Sound families that researchers have used to good effect in this endeavor include human speech, species-specific vocalizations, an “acoustic biotope” selected in one way or another, and sets of artificial sounds that mimic important features of natural sounds. Peripheral and brainstem representations of natural sounds are relatively well understood. The properties of the peripheral auditory system play a dominant role, and further processing occurs mostly within the frequency channels determined by these properties. At the level of the inferior colliculus, the highest brainstem station, representational complexity increases substantially due to the convergence of multiple processing streams. Undoubtedly, the most explored part of the auditory system, in term of responses to natural sounds, is the primary auditory cortex. In spite of over 50 years of research, there is still no commonly accepted view of the nature of the population code for natural sounds in the auditory cortex. Neurons in the auditory cortex are believed by some to be primarily linear spectro-temporal filters, by others to respond to conjunctions of important sound features, or even to encode perceptual concepts such as “auditory objects.” Whatever the exact mechanism is, many studies consistently report a substantial increase in the variability of the response patterns of cortical neurons to natural sounds. The generation of such variation may be the main contribution of auditory cortex to the coding of natural sounds.


Anatomical Organization and Coding in the Gustatory System: A Functional Perspective  

Susan P. Travers and Alan C. Spector

Gustatory signals from the mouth travel to the rostral nucleus of the solitary tract (rNST) over the VIIth (anterior tongue and palate) and IXth (posterior tongue) cranial nerves and synapse in the central subdivision in an overlapping orotopic pattern. Oral somatosensory information likewise reaches rNST, preferentially terminating in the lateral subdivision. Two additional rNST subdivisions, the medial and ventral, receive only sparse primary afferent inputs. Ascending pathways arise primarily from the central subdivision; local reflex and intranuclear pathways originate from the other subdivisions. Thus, parallel processing is already evident at the first central nervous system (CNS) relay. Ascending rNST taste fibers connect to the pontine parabrachial nucleus (PBN), strongly terminating in the ventral lateral (VL) and medial subnuclei (M) of the waist region but also in the external lateral (EL) and medial (EM) subnuclei. PBN projections travel along two main routes. A “lemniscal” processing stream connects to the thalamic taste relay, the parvicellular division of the ventroposteromedial nucleus (VPMpc), which in turn projects to insular cortex. A second, “limbic” pathway synapses in the lateral hypothalamus (LH), central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA), bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), and substantia innominata (SI). The ventral tegmental area (VTA), a critical nucleus in the so-called reward circuit, also receives input from the gustatory PBN. Forebrain gustatory structures are interconnected and give rise to copious feedback pathways. Single-neuron recording and calcium imaging demonstrates that taste response profiles in both the peripheral nerves and CNS lemniscal structures are highly orderly. Arguably, a limited number of neuron “types” are defined by the qualitative class of compounds (sugars, sweeteners, amino acids, sodium salts, acids and non-sodium salts, “bitter”) that elicit the largest response in a cell. In the periphery and NST, some findings suggest these classes correspond to distinct molecular phenotypes and functions, but evidence for a cortical chemotopic organization is highly controversial. CNS neuron types are complicated by convergence and lability as a function of homeostatic, cognitive, and experiential variables. Moreover, gustatory responses are dynamic, providing additional coding potential in the temporal domain. Interestingly, taste responses in the limbic pathway are particularly plastic and code for hedonics more obviously than quality. Studies in decerebrate rats reveal that the brainstem is sufficient to maintain appropriate oromotor and somatic responses, referred to as taste reactivity, to nutritive (sugars) and harmful (quinine) stimuli. However, forebrain processing is necessary for taste reactivity to be modulated by learning, at least with respect to taste aversion conditioning. Functional studies of the rodent cortex tell a complex story. Lesion studies in rats emphasize a considerable degree of residual function in animals lacking large regions of insular cortex despite demonstrating shifts in detection thresholds for certain, but not all, stimuli representing different taste qualities. They also have an impact on conditioned taste aversion. Investigations in mice employing optogenetic and chemogenetic manipulations suggest that different regions of insular cortex are critical for discriminating certain qualities and that their connections to the amygdala underlie their hedonic impact. The continued use of sophisticated behavioral experiments coordinated with molecular methods for monitoring and manipulating activity in defined neural circuits should ultimately yield satisfying answers to long-standing debates about the fundamental operation of the gustatory system.


Retinal Mechanisms for Motion Detection  

Mathew T. Summers, Malak El Quessny, and Marla B. Feller

Motion is a key feature of the sensory experience of visual animals. The mammalian retina has evolved a number of diverse motion sensors to detect and parse visual motion into behaviorally relevant neural signals. Extensive work has identified retinal outputs encoding directional and nondirectional motion, and the intermediate circuitry underlying this tuning. Detailed circuit mechanism investigation has established retinal direction selectivity in particular as a model system of neural computation.


Mammalian Visual System Organization  

Farran Briggs

Many mammals, including humans, rely primarily on vision to sense the environment. While a large proportion of the brain is devoted to vision in highly visual animals, there are not enough neurons in the visual system to support a neuron-per-object look-up table. Instead, visual animals evolved ways to rapidly and dynamically encode an enormous diversity of visual information using minimal numbers of neurons (merely hundreds of millions of neurons and billions of connections!). In the mammalian visual system, a visual image is essentially broken down into simple elements that are reconstructed through a series of processing stages, most of which occur beneath consciousness. Importantly, visual information processing is not simply a serial progression along the hierarchy of visual brain structures (e.g., retina to visual thalamus to primary visual cortex to secondary visual cortex, etc.). Instead, connections within and between visual brain structures exist in all possible directions: feedforward, feedback, and lateral. Additionally, many mammalian visual systems are organized into parallel channels, presumably to enable efficient processing of information about different and important features in the visual environment (e.g., color, motion). The overall operations of the mammalian visual system are to: (1) combine unique groups of feature detectors in order to generate object representations and (2) integrate visual sensory information with cognitive and contextual information from the rest of the brain. Together, these operations enable individuals to perceive, plan, and act within their environment.


Autonomic Regulation of Kidney Function  

Mohammed H. Abdulla and Edward J. Johns

A potential role for the renal innervation was first described in 1859 by Claude Bernard, who observed an increase in urine flow following section of the greater splanchnic nerve, which included the renal nerves. Subsequent studies provided little further clarity, leading Homer Smith in 1951 to declare that the renal innervation had little or no significance in controlling kidney hemodynamic or excretory function. However, since the 1960s, there has been increased attention to how the renal nerves may contribute to the deranged control of blood pressure and heart function cardiovascular diseases. The efferent (sympathetic) nerves have neuroeffector junctions which provide close contact with all vascular and tubular elements of the kidney. Activation of the sympathetic nerves at the resistance vessels, that is, the interlobular arteries afferent and even arterioles, modulates both renal blood flow and glomerular filtration rate; at the juxtaglomerular granular cells, they cause renin release and subsequent angiotensin II generation, and at the tubules there is a neurally stimulated increase in epithelial cell sodium transport. Less is known of the role of the afferent nerves, which primarily innervate the renal pelvis, and to a lesser degree the cortex and medulla. Their role is uncertain but sensory information passing to the brain can influence renal efferent nerve activity, forming the basis of both inhibitory and excitatory reno-renal reflexes. Increasingly, it is perceived that in a range of cardiovascular diseases such as cardiac failure, chronic renal disease, and hypertension, there is an inappropriate sympatho-excitation related to alterations in afferent renal nerve activity, which exacerbates the disease progression. The importance of the renal innervation in these disease processes has been emphasized in clinical studies where renal denervation in humans has been found to reduce blood pressure in resistant hypertensive patients and to ameliorate the progression of cardiac and kidney diseases, diabetes, and obesity and hypertension. The importance of both systemic and renal inflammatory responses in activating the neurohumoral control of the kidney is a continuing source of investigation.