Painful channels in sensory neurons

Mol Cells. 2005 Dec 31;20(3):315-24.


Pain is an unpleasant sensation experienced when tissues are damaged. Thus, pain sensation in some way protects body from imminent threat or injury. Peripheral sensory nerves innervated to peripheral tissues initially respond to multiple forms of noxious or strong stimuli, such as heat, mechanical and chemical stimuli. In response to these stimuli, electrical signals for conducting the nociceptive neural signals through axons are generated. These action potentials are then conveyed to specific areas in the spinal cord and in the brain. Sensory afferent fibers are heterogeneous in many aspects. For example, sensory nerves are classified as Aa, -b, -d and C-fibers according to their diameter and degree of myelination. It is widely accepted that small sensory fibers tend to respond to vigorous or noxious stimuli and related to nociception. Thus these fibers are specifically called nociceptors. Most of nociceptors respond to noxious mechanical stimuli and heat. In addition, these sensory fibers also respond to chemical stimuli [Davis et al. (1993)] such as capsaicin. Thus, nociceptors are considered polymodal. Recent advance in research on ion channels in sensory neurons reveals molecular mechanisms underlying how various types of stimuli can be transduced to neural signals transmitted to the brain for pain perception. In particular, electrophysiological studies on ion channels characterize biophysical properties of ion channels in sensory neurons. Furthermore, molecular biology leads to identification of genetic structures as well as molecular properties of ion channels in sensory neurons. These ion channels are expressed in axon terminals as well as in cell soma. When these channels are activated, inward currents or outward currents are generated, which will lead to depolarization or hyperpolarization of the membrane causing increased or decreased excitability of sensory neurons. In order to depolarize the membrane of nerve terminals, either inward currents should be generated or outward currents should be inhibited. So far, many cationic channels that are responsible for the excitation of sensory neurons are introduced recently. Activation of these channels in sensory neurons is evidently critical to the generation of nociceptive signals. The main channels responsible for inward membrane currents in nociceptors are voltage-activated sodium and calcium channels, while outward current is carried mainly by potassium ions. In addition, activation of non-selective cation channels is also responsible for the excitation of sensory neurons. Thus, excitability of neurons can be controlled by regulating expression or by modulating activity of these channels.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Ion Channels / physiology*
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology*
  • Nociceptors / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Ion Channels