Molecular, Cellular and Circuit Basis of Cholinergic Modulation of Pain

Neuroscience. 2018 Sep 1;387:135-148. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2017.08.049. Epub 2017 Sep 8.


In addition to being a key component of the autonomic nervous system, acetylcholine acts as a prominent neurotransmitter and neuromodulator upon release from key groups of cholinergic projection neurons and interneurons distributed across the central nervous system. It has been more than forty years since it was discovered that cholinergic transmission profoundly modifies the perception of pain. Directly activating cholinergic receptors or extending the action of endogenous acetylcholine via pharmacological blockade of acetylcholine esterase reduces pain in rodents as well as humans; conversely, inhibition of muscarinic cholinergic receptors induces nociceptive hypersensitivity. Here, we aim to review the considerable progress in our understanding of peripheral, spinal and brain contributions to cholinergic modulation of pain. We discuss the distribution of cholinergic neurons, muscarinic and nicotinic receptors over the central nervous system and the synaptic and circuit-level modulation by cholinergic signaling. AchRs profoundly regulate nociceptive transmission at the level of the spinal cord via pre- as well as postsynaptic mechanisms. Moreover, we attempt to provide an overview of how some of the salient regions in the pain network spanning the brain, such as the primary somatosensory cortex, insular cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex and descending modulatory systems are influenced by cholinergic modulation. Finally, we critically discuss the clinical relevance of cholinergic signaling to pain therapy. Cholinergic mechanisms contribute to several both conventional as well as unorthodox forms of pain treatments, and reciprocal interactions between cholinergic and opioidergic modulation impact on the function and efficacy of both opioids and cholinomimetic drugs.

Keywords: acetylcholine; cholinergic analgesia; cholinergic–opioidergic interaction; muscarinic; nicotinic; pain.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cholinergic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cholinergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain / physiopathology*


  • Cholinergic Agents