Journal of Neurophysiology

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Vagal afferent inhibition of primate thoracic spinothalamic neurons

W. S. Ammons, R. W. Blair, R. D. Foreman


Spinothalamic (ST) neurons in the C8-T5 segments of the spinal cord were examined for responses to electrical stimulation of the left thoracic vagus nerve (LTV). Seventy-one ST neurons were studied in 39 anesthetized monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). Each neuron could be excited by manipulation of its somatic field and by electrical stimulation of cardiopulmonary sympathetic afferent fibers. LTV stimulation resulted in inhibition of the background activity of 43 (61%) ST neurons. Nine (13%) were excited, 3 (4%) were excited and then inhibited, while 16 (22%) did not respond. There was little difference among these groups in terms of the type of somatic or sympathetic afferent input although inhibited cells tended to be more prevalent in the more superficial laminae. The degree of inhibition resulting from LTV stimulation was related, in a linear fashion, to the magnitude of cell activity before stimulation. LTV inhibition of background activity was similar among wide dynamic range, high threshold, and high-threshold cells with inhibitory hair input. Any apparent differences in LTV inhibitory effects among these groups were accounted for by the differences in ongoing cell activity as predicted by linear regression analysis. LTV stimulation inhibited responses of 32 of 32 ST cells to somatic stimuli. In most cases the stimulus was a noxious pinch; however, LTV stimulation also inhibited responses to innocuous stimuli such as hair movement. Bilateral cervical vagotomy abolished the inhibitory effect of LTV stimulation on background activity (six cells) or responses to somatic stimuli (seven cells). Stimulation of the cardiac branch of the vagus inhibited activity of three cells to a similar degree as LTV stimulation, while stimulation of the vagus below the heart was ineffective in reducing activity of 10 cells. We conclude that LTV stimulation alters activity of ST neurons in the upper thoracic spinal cord. Vagal inhibition of ST cell activity was due to stimulation of cardiopulmonary vagal afferent fibers coursing to the brain stem, which appear to activate descending inhibitory spinal pathways. Vagal afferent activity may participate in processing of somatosensory information as well as information related to cardiac pain.