Corneal pain is mediated by primary afferent fibers projecting to the dorsal horn of the medulla, specifically the trigeminal nucleus caudalis. In contrast to reflex responses, the conscious perception of pain requires transmission of neural activity to higher brain centers. Ascending pain transmission is mediated primarily by pathways to either the thalamus or parabrachial nuclei. We previously showed that some corneal afferent fibers preferentially contact parabrachial-projecting neurons in the rostral pole of the trigeminal nucleus caudalis, but the role of these projection neurons in transmitting noxious information from the cornea has not been established. In the present study, we show that noxious stimulation of the corneal surface activates neurons in the rostral pole of the nucleus caudalis, including parabrachially projecting neurons that receive direct input from corneal afferent fibers. We used immunocytochemical detection of c-Fos protein as an index of neuronal activation after noxious ocular stimulation. Animals had previously received injections of a retrograde tracer into either thalamic or parabrachial nuclei to identify projection neurons in the trigeminal dorsal horn. Noxious stimulation of the cornea induced c-Fos in neurons sending projections to parabrachial nuclei, but not thalamic nuclei. We also confirmed that corneal afferent fibers identified with cholera toxin B preferentially target trigeminal dorsal horn neurons projecting to the parabrachial nucleus. The parabrachial region sends ascending projections to brain regions involved in emotional and homeostatic responses. Activation of the ascending parabrachial system may explain the extraordinary salience of stimulation of corneal nociceptors.
Keywords: Cholera toxin B; Cornea; Noxious; Parabrachial; Thalamus.
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