Ultrastructural Evidence for Oxytocin and Oxytocin Receptor at the Spinal Dorsal Horn: Mechanism of Nociception Modulation

Neuroscience. 2021 Nov 1:475:117-126. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2021.09.004. Epub 2021 Sep 14.


Oxytocin is a hypothalamic neuropeptide involved in the inhibition of nociception transmission at spinal dorsal horn (SDH) level (the first station where the incoming peripheral signals is modulated). Electrophysiological, behavioral, and pharmacological data strongly support the role of this neuropeptide and its receptor (the oxytocin receptor, OTR) as a key endogenous molecule with analgesic properties. Briefly, current data showed that oxytocin release from the hypothalamus induces OTR activation at the SDH, inducing selective inhibition of the nociceptive Aδ- and C-fibers (probably peptidergic) activity, but not the activity of proprioceptive fibers (i.e. Aβ-fibers). The above inhibition could be a direct presynaptic mechanism, or a mechanism mediated by GABAergic interneurons. However, the exact anatomical localization of oxytocin and OTR remains unclear. In this context, the present study set out to analyze the role of OTRs, GABAergic cells and CGRP fibers in the SDH in rats by using electron microscopy. Ultrastructural analyses of the SDH tissue show that: (i) oxytocin and OTR are found in asymmetrical synapsis; (ii) OTR is found in GABAergic interneurons (near unmyelinated fibers), CGRPergic fibers and glial cells; (iii) whereas oxytocin is present in supraspinal descending projection fibers. These anatomical data strongly support the notion that oxytocin released at the SDH could presynaptically inhibit the nociceptive input from the peripheral primary afferent fibers. This inhibitory action could be direct or use a GABA interneuron. Furthermore, our findings that OTR is exhibited in glial tissue at the SDH requires further exploration in nociception assays.

Keywords: analgesia; oxytocin mechanism; pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Nerve Fibers, Unmyelinated
  • Nociception*
  • Oxytocin
  • Posterior Horn Cells
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Oxytocin*
  • Spinal Cord Dorsal Horn


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • oxytocin receptor, rat
  • Oxytocin