The locus coeruleus (LC) noradrenergic (NE) neuromodulatory system is critically involved in regulation of neural excitability via its diffuse ascending projections. Tonic NE release in the forebrain is essential for maintenance of vigilant states and increases the signal-to-noise ratio of cortical sensory responses. The impact of phasic NE release on cortical activity and sensory processing is less explored. We previously reported that LC microstimulation caused a transient desynchronization of population activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), similar to noxious somatosensory stimuli. The LC receives nociceptive information from the medulla and therefore may mediate sensory signaling to its forebrain targets. Here we performed extracellular recordings in LC and mPFC while presenting noxious stimuli in urethane-anesthetized rats. A brief train of foot shocks produced a robust phasic response in the LC and a transient change in the mPFC power spectrum, with the strongest modulation in the gamma (30-90 Hz) range. The LC phasic response preceded prefrontal gamma power increase, and cortical modulation was proportional to the LC excitation. We also quantitatively characterized distinct cortical states and showed that sensory responses in both LC and mPFC depend on the ongoing cortical state. Finally, cessation of the LC firing by bilateral local iontophoretic injection of clonidine, an α2-adrenoreceptor agonist, completely eliminated sensory responses in the mPFC without shifting cortex to a less excitable state. Together, our results suggest that the LC phasic response induces gamma power increase in the PFC and is essential for mediating sensory information along an ascending noxious pathway. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Our study shows linear relationships between locus coeruleus phasic excitation and the amplitude of gamma oscillations in the prefrontal cortex. Results suggest that the locus coeruleus phasic response is essential for mediating sensory information along an ascending noxious pathway.
Keywords: cortical state; gamma oscillations; locus coeruleus; norepinephrine; noxious stimulation; prefrontal cortex; state-dependent response.