A combined electrophysiological and morphological study of neuropeptide Y-expressing inhibitory interneurons in the spinal dorsal horn of the mouse

Pain. 2016 Mar;157(3):598-612. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000407.


The spinal dorsal horn contains numerous inhibitory interneurons that control transmission of somatosensory information. Although these cells have important roles in modulating pain, we still have limited information about how they are incorporated into neuronal circuits, and this is partly due to difficulty in assigning them to functional populations. Around 15% of inhibitory interneurons in laminae I-III express neuropeptide Y (NPY), but little is known about this population. We therefore used a combined electrophysiological/morphological approach to investigate these cells in mice that express green fluorescent protein (GFP) under control of the NPY promoter. We show that GFP is largely restricted to NPY-immunoreactive cells, although it is only expressed by a third of those in lamina I-II. Reconstructions of recorded neurons revealed that they were morphologically heterogeneous, but never islet cells. Many NPY-GFP cells (including cells in lamina III) appeared to be innervated by C fibres that lack transient receptor potential vanilloid-1, and consistent with this, we found that some lamina III NPY-immunoreactive cells were activated by mechanical noxious stimuli. Projection neurons in lamina III are densely innervated by NPY-containing axons. Our results suggest that this input originates from a small subset of NPY-expressing interneurons, with the projection cells representing only a minority of their output. Taken together with results of previous studies, our findings indicate that somatodendritic morphology is of limited value in classifying functional populations among inhibitory interneurons in the dorsal horn. Because many NPY-expressing cells respond to noxious stimuli, these are likely to have a role in attenuating pain and limiting its spread.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena / physiology
  • Female
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / analysis
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Interneurons / chemistry
  • Interneurons / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology*
  • Neuropeptide Y / analysis
  • Neuropeptide Y / biosynthesis*
  • Organ Culture Techniques
  • Posterior Horn Cells / chemistry
  • Posterior Horn Cells / metabolism
  • Spinal Cord Dorsal Horn / chemistry
  • Spinal Cord Dorsal Horn / cytology*
  • Spinal Cord Dorsal Horn / metabolism*


  • Neuropeptide Y
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins