Descending control of persistent pain: inhibitory or facilitatory?

Brain Res Brain Res Rev. 2004 Nov;46(3):295-309. doi: 10.1016/j.brainresrev.2004.07.004.


The periaqueductal gray matter (PAG) and the nucleus raphe magnus and adjacent structures of the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM), with their projections to the spinal dorsal horn, constitute the "efferent channel" of a pain-control system that "descends" from the brain onto the spinal cord. Considerable evidence has recently emerged regarding participation of this system in persistent pain conditions such as inflammation and neuropathy. Herein, this evidence is reviewed and organized to support the idea that persistent nociception simultaneously triggers descending facilitation and inhibition. In models of inflammation, descending inhibition predominates over facilitation in pain circuits with input from the inflamed tissue, and thus attenuates primary hyperalgesia, while descending facilitation predominates over inhibition in pain circuits with input from neighboring tissues, and thus facilitates secondary hyperalgesia. Both descending facilitation and inhibition mainly stem from RVM. The formalin-induced primary hyperalgesia, although considered a model for inflammation, is mainly facilitated from RVM. Also, formalin-induced secondary hyperalgesia is facilitated by RVM. Again, formalin triggers a concomitant but concealed descending inhibition. The (primary) hyperalgesia and allodynia of the neuropathic syndrome are also facilitated from RVM. Simultaneously, there is an inhibition of secondary neuronal pools that is partly supported from the PAG. Because in all these models of peripheral damage descending facilitation and inhibition are triggered simultaneously, it will be important to elucidate why inhibition predominates in some neuronal pools and facilitation in others. Therapies that enhance descending inhibition and/or attenuate descending facilitation are furthermore an important target for research in the future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Efferent Pathways / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Medulla Oblongata / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Pain, Intractable / physiopathology*
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Posterior Horn Cells / physiology
  • Reticular Formation / physiology
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology