Pruriceptive spinothalamic tract neurons: physiological properties and projection targets in the primate

J Neurophysiol. 2012 Sep;108(6):1711-23. doi: 10.1152/jn.00206.2012. Epub 2012 Jun 20.


Itch of peripheral origin requires information transfer from the spinal cord to the brain for perception. Here, primate spinothalamic tract (STT) neurons from lumbar spinal cord were functionally characterized by in vivo electrophysiology to determine the role of these cells in the transmission of pruriceptive information. One hundred eleven STT neurons were identified by antidromic stimulation and then recorded while histamine and cowhage (a nonhistaminergic pruritogen) were sequentially applied to the cutaneous receptive field of each cell. Twenty percent of STT neurons responded to histamine, 13% responded to cowhage, and 2% responded to both. All pruriceptive STT neurons were mechanically sensitive and additionally responded to heat, intradermal capsaicin, or both. STT neurons located in the superficial dorsal horn responded with greater discharge and longer duration to pruritogens than STT neurons located in the deep dorsal horn. Pruriceptive STT neurons discharged in a bursting pattern in response to the activating pruritogen and to capsaicin. Microantidromic mapping was used to determine the zone of termination for pruriceptive STT axons within the thalamus. Axons from histamine-responsive and cowhage-responsive STT neurons terminated in several thalamic nuclei including the ventral posterior lateral, ventral posterior inferior, and posterior nuclei. Axons from cowhage-responsive neurons were additionally found to terminate in the suprageniculate and medial geniculate nuclei. Histamine-responsive STT neurons were sensitized to gentle stroking of the receptive field after the response to histamine, suggesting a spinal mechanism for alloknesis. The results show that pruriceptive information is encoded by polymodal STT neurons in histaminergic or nonhistaminergic pathways and transmitted to the ventrobasal complex and posterior thalamus in primates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Capsaicin / pharmacology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Histamine / pharmacology
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Mucuna / toxicity
  • Nociception
  • Plant Extracts / pharmacology
  • Posterior Horn Cells / cytology
  • Posterior Horn Cells / drug effects
  • Posterior Horn Cells / physiopathology*
  • Pruritus / chemically induced
  • Pruritus / physiopathology*
  • Spinothalamic Tracts / cytology
  • Spinothalamic Tracts / drug effects
  • Spinothalamic Tracts / physiopathology*
  • Thalamic Nuclei / cytology
  • Thalamic Nuclei / physiopathology
  • Touch
  • Touch Perception / physiology*


  • Plant Extracts
  • Histamine
  • Capsaicin