Developmental learning in a pain-related system: Evidence for a cross-modality mechanism

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Abstract

The nociceptive spinal reflex system performs highly precise sensorimotor transformations that require functionally specified synaptic strengths. The specification is gradually attained during early development and appears to be learning dependent. Here we determine the time course of this specification for heat-nociceptive tail withdrawal reflexes and analyze which types of primary afferents are important for the learning by applying various forms of noninvasive sensory deprivations. The percentage of erroneous heat-nociceptive tail withdrawal reflexes (i.e., movements directed toward the stimulation) decreased gradually from 64.1 +/- 2.5% ( mean +/- SEM) to <10% during postnatal days 10-21. This improvement was completely blocked by anesthetizing the tail during the adaptation period, confirming that an experience-dependent mechanism is involved in the specification of synaptic strengths. However, the results show that the adaptation occurs to a significant extent despite local analgesia and protection of the tail from noxious input, provided that tactile sensitivity is preserved. Therefore, it appears that a nociceptive input is not necessary for the adaptation, and that input from tactile receptors can be used to guide the nociceptive synaptic organization during development. Sensory deprivation in the adult rat failed to affect the heat-nociceptive withdrawal reflex system, indicating that the adaptation has a "critical period" during early development. These findings provide a key to the puzzle of how pain-related systems can be functionally adapted through experience despite the rare occurrence of noxious input during early life.

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Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Neurosciences

Keywords

  • cord, spinal, activity-dependent learning and memory, pain, somatosensory, development, sensorimotor transformation
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7719-7725
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Volume23
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 2003
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes