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Keywords:

  • spinal cord;
  • ascending tracts;
  • visceroception;
  • nociception;
  • anatomy;
  • retrograde tracing

Abstract

The location of spinal cells projecting rostrally to central areas that process visceroception and visceronociception were studied in rat using the retrograde transport of a protein-gold complex. Origins of afferents to the nucleus tractus solitarius (the spinosolitary tract), the parabrachial area (the spinoparabrachial tract), the hypothalamus (the spinohypothalamic tract) and the amygdala (the spinoamygdalar tract) were studied at thoracic, lumbar and sacral levels, where spinal visceroceptive areas are concentrated. All of the afore-mentioned pathways have common origins in the lateral spinal nucleus and in the reticular formation of the neck of the dorsal horn at all the levels studied, and also in the dorsal grey commissure and adjacent areas at sacral levels. The spinosolitary and the spinoparabrachial tracts are dense pathways, both of which are also characterized by afferents from the superficial layers of the dorsal horn at all the levels studied and from cells lying in close proximity to some autonomie spinal areas. These autonomie areas are the central autonomie nucleus (dorsal commissural nucleus) of lamina X at thoracolumbar levels and the parasympathetic column at sacral levels; some projections from the intermediolateral cell column at thoracic levels were also noted. Projections from all these autonomie structures to the parabrachial area have not yet been recognized. Thus, the origin of the spinoparabrachial tract closely resembles that of the spinomesencephalic tract that reaches the periaquaductal grey and adjacent areas. The spinohypothalamic and the spinoamygdalar tracts are smaller pathways. Direct spinal connections to the amygdala have not been reported previously. Both the hypothalamus and amygdala receive projections from lamina VII cells at low thoracic and upper lumbar levels in a pattern that resembles that of the preganglionic cells of the intercalated nucleus. Hypothalamic projections from the sacral parasympathetic area were also noted. The use of c-fos as a functional marker to identify spinal neurons that are activated by noxious visceral stimulation suggests that both the spinoparabrachial and the spinosolitary tracts contribute significantly to the central transmission of visceronociceptive messages. Most of the visceronociceptive ascending projections in these pathways issued from lamina I cells. The results presented here confirm previous observations regarding the spinosolitary and the spinohypothalamic tracts and also demonstrate, for the first time, the complex origin of the spinoparabrachial tract and the existence of direct spinal afferents to the amygdala. These findings suggest that rostral transmission and central integration of visceral inputs require several parallel routes. The spinosolitary and spinoparabrachial tracts clearly play a role in conveying information regarding visceronociception.