The changing balance of brainstem-spinal cord modulation of pain processing over the first weeks of rat postnatal life

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Abstract

Brainstem-spinal cord connections play an essential role in adult pain processing, and the modulation of spinal pain network excitability by brainstem nuclei is known to contribute to hyperalgesia and chronic pain. Less well understood is the role of descending brainstem pathways in young animals when pain networks are more excitable and exposure to injury and stress can lead to permanent modulation of pain processing. Here we show that up to postnatal day 21 (P21) in the rat, the rostroventral medulla of the brainstem (RVM) exclusively facilitates spinal pain transmission but that after this age (P28 to adult), the influence of the RVM shifts to biphasic facilitation and inhibition. Graded electrical microstimulation of the RVM at different postnatal ages revealed a robust shift in the balance of descending control of both spinal nociceptive flexion reflex EMG activity and individual dorsal horn neuron firing properties, from excitation to inhibition, beginning after P21. The shift in polarity of descending control was also observed following excitotoxic lesions of the RVM in adult and P21 rats. In adults, RVM lesions decreased behavioural mechanical sensory reflex thresholds, whereas the same lesion in P21 rats increased thresholds. These data demonstrate, for the first time, the changing postnatal influence of the RVM in spinal nociception and highlight the central role of descending brainstem control in the maturation of pain processing.

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