Responsiveness and functional attributes of electrically localized terminals of cutaneous C-fibers in vivo and in vitro

J Neurophysiol. 1992 Aug;68(2):581-95. doi: 10.1152/jn.1992.68.2.581.


1. The purpose of the present study was to compare the responsiveness unmyelinated cutaneous units in vivo and in vitro and to determine the proportion of primary afferents innervating the rat hairy skin that do not respond to transient mechanical or thermal stimuli. We have adopted electrical search strategies to locate the terminal arborization of unmyelinated fibers before testing the sensitivity to adequate stimuli. 2. A total of 144 unmyelinated units were studied, of which 31 were obtained from in vivo and 113 from in vitro experiments. 55 afferents were investigated after chronic surgical sympathectomy. Units recorded from sympathectomized rats did not differ in their conduction velocity, electrical thresholds, or receptive properties from units in intact animals. 3. There were only minor differences between the properties of units recorded in vivo and in vitro. This probably reflects technical differences of the setups rather than biological changes introduced by the in vitro conditions. Except for a higher prevalence of mechano-cold sensitive units in vitro, there was no significant difference between the distributions of receptor types. 4. Eight of 31 units (26%) recorded in vivo and 17 of 113 units (15%) obtained from in vitro experiments failed to respond to transient mechanical or thermal stimuli. In vivo, one of eight initially unresponsive units was activated by repeated mechanical and thermal stimulation. Two further units became responsive after topical application of mustard oil. In vitro, 2 of 17 unresponsive units were activated by repeated stimulation. Ten of the remaining unresponsive units were treated with a combination of inflammatory mediators. Four of these units were activated: three developed ongoing activity, and two of them also became responsive to mechanical and/or heat stimuli. The fourth unit responded to probing but was not spontaneously active. 5. We conclude that transient mechanical or thermal stimuli can excite the majority of unmyelinated cutaneous units. However, in vivo and in vitro, part of unmyelinated units are initially unresponsive even to noxious forms of stimulation. Because those unresponsive units were also encountered in sympathectomized preparations, and because some units can be recruited with repeated noxious stimuli or inflammatory agents, it is unlikely that all of them are sympathetic efferents. The same substances that cause sensitization of "normal" nociceptors are capable of recruiting initially unresponsive unmyelinated afferents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cold Temperature
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology
  • Nerve Endings / physiology*
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology*
  • Neural Conduction / physiology
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Strains
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology
  • Skin / innervation*
  • Sympathectomy