Paleospinothalamic Pathway

Dual Pathways for Transmission of Pain Signals into the Central Nervous System

Even though all pain receptors are free nerve endings, these endings use two separate pathways for transmitting pain signals into the central nervous system. The two pathways mainly correspond to the two types of pain—a fast-sharp pain pathway and a slow-chronic pain pathway.

Peripheral Pain Fibers—"Fast" and "Slow" Fibers. The fastsharp pain signals are elicited by either mechanical or thermal pain stimuli; they are transmitted in the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord by small type AS fibers at velocities between 6 and 30 m/sec. Conversely, the slow-chronic type of pain is elicited mostly by chemical types of pain stimuli but sometimes by persisting mechanical or thermal stimuli. This slow-chronic pain is transmitted to the spinal cord by type C fibers at velocities between 0.5 and 2 m/sec.

Because of this double system of pain innervation, a sudden painful stimulus often gives a "double" pain sensation: a fast-sharp pain that is transmitted to the brain by the AS fiber pathway, followed a second or so later by a slow pain that is transmitted by the C fiber pathway. The sharp pain apprises the person rapidly of a damaging influence and, therefore, plays an important role in making the person react immediately to remove himself or herself from the stimulus. The slow pain tends to become greater over time. This sensation eventually produces the intolerable suffering of long-continued pain and makes the person keep trying to relieve the cause of the pain.

On entering the spinal cord from the dorsal spinal roots, the pain fibers terminate on relay neurons in the dorsal horns. Here again, there are two systems for processing the pain signals on their way to the brain, as shown in Figures 48-2 and 48-3.

Dual Pain Pathways in the Cord and Brain Stem—The Neospinothalamic Tract and the Paleospinothalamic Tract

On entering the spinal cord, the pain signals take two pathways to the brain, through (1) the neospinothalamic tract and (2) the paleospinothalamic tract.

Neospinothalamic Tract for Fast Pain. The fast type AS pain fibers transmit mainly mechanical and acute thermal pain. They terminate mainly in lamina I (lamina marginalis) of the dorsal horns, as shown in Figure 48-2, and there excite second-order neurons of the neospinothalamic tract. These give rise to long fibers that cross immediately to the opposite side of the cord through the anterior commissure and then turn upward, passing to the brain in the anterolateral columns.

Figure 48-2

Transmission of both "fast-sharp" and "slow-chronic" pain signals into and through the spinal cord on their way to the brain.

To: Somatosensory areas

To: Somatosensory areas

Tactile Brain Pathway
Figure 48-3

Transmission of pain signals into the brain stem, thalamus, and cerebral cortex by way of the fast pricking pain pathway and the slow burning pain pathway.

Termination of the Neospinothalamic Tract in the Brain Stem and Thalamus. A few fibers of the neospinothal-amic tract terminate in the reticular areas of the brain stem, but most pass all the way to the thalamus without interruption, terminating in the ventrobasal complex along with the dorsal column-medial lemniscal tract for tactile sensations, as was discussed in Chapter 47. A few fibers also terminate in the posterior nuclear group of the thalamus. From these thalamic areas, the signals are transmitted to other basal areas of the brain as well as to the somatosensory cortex.

Capability of the Nervous System to Localize Fast Pain in the Body. The fast-sharp type of pain can be localized much more exactly in the different parts of the body than can slow-chronic pain. However, when only pain receptors are stimulated, without the simultaneous stimulation of tactile receptors, even fast pain may be poorly localized, often only within 10 centimeters or so of the stimulated area. Yet when tactile receptors that excite the dorsal column-medial lemniscal system are simultaneously stimulated, the localization can be nearly exact.

Glutamate, the Probable Neurotransmitter of the Type Ad Fast Pain Fibers. It is believed that glutamate is the neurotransmitter substance secreted in the spinal cord at the type A8 pain nerve fiber endings. This is one of the most widely used excitatory transmitters in the central nervous system, usually having a duration of action lasting for only a few milliseconds.

Paleospinothalamic Pathway for Transmitting Slow-Chronic

Pain. The paleospinothalamic pathway is a much older system and transmits pain mainly from the peripheral slow-chronic type C pain fibers, although it does transmit some signals from type A8 fibers as well. In this pathway, the peripheral fibers terminate in the spinal cord almost entirely in laminae II and III of the dorsal horns, which together are called the substantia gelatinosa, as shown by the lateral most dorsal root type C fiber in Figure 48-2. Most of the signals then pass through one or more additional short fiber neurons within the dorsal horns themselves before entering mainly lamina V, also in the dorsal horn. Here the last neurons in the series give rise to long axons that mostly join the fibers from the fast pain pathway, passing first through the anterior commissure to the opposite side of the cord, then upward to the brain in the anterolat-eral pathway.

Substance P, the Probable Slow-Chronic Neurotransmitter of Type C Nerve Endings. Research experiments suggest that type C pain fiber terminals entering the spinal cord secrete both glutamate transmitter and substance P transmitter. The glutamate transmitter acts instantaneously and lasts for only a few milliseconds. Substance P is released much more slowly, building up in concentration over a period of seconds or even minutes. In fact, it has been suggested that the "double" pain sensation one feels after a pinprick might result partly from the fact that the glutamate transmitter gives a faster pain sensation, whereas the substance P transmitter gives a more lagging sensation. Regardless of the yet unknown details, it seems clear that glutamate is the neurotransmitter most involved in transmitting fast pain into the central nervous system, and substance P is concerned with slow-chronic pain.

Projection of the Paleospinothalamic Pathway (Slow-Chronic Pain Signals) into the Brain Stem and Thalamus. The slow-chronic paleospinothalamic pathway terminates widely in the brain stem, in the large shaded area shown in Figure 48-3. Only one tenth to one fourth of the fibers pass all the way to the thalamus. Instead, most terminate in one of three areas: (1) the reticular nuclei of the medulla, pons, and mesencephalon; (2) the tectal area of the mesencephalon deep to the superior and inferior colliculi; or (3) the periaqueductal gray region surrounding the aqueduct of Sylvius. These lower regions of the brain appear to be important for feeling the suffering types of pain, because animals whose brains have been sectioned above the mesencephalon to block pain signals from reaching the cerebrum still evince undeniable evidence of suffering when any part of the body is traumatized. From the brain stem pain areas, multiple short-fiber neurons relay the pain signals upward into the intralaminar and ventrolateral nuclei of the thalamus and into certain portions of the hypothalamus and other basal regions of the brain.

Very Poor Capability of the Nervous System to Localize Precisely the Source of Pain Transmitted in the Slow-Chronic Pathway. Localization of pain transmitted by way of the paleospinothalamic pathway is poor. For instance, slow-chronic pain can usually be localized only to a major part of the body, such as to one arm or leg but not to a specific point on the arm or leg. This is in keeping with the multisynaptic, diffuse connectivity of this pathway. It explains why patients often have serious difficulty in localizing the source of some chronic types of pain.

Function of the Reticular Formation, Thalamus, and Cerebral Cortex in the Appreciation of Pain. Complete removal of the somatic sensory areas of the cerebral cortex does not destroy an animal's ability to perceive pain. Therefore, it is likely that pain impulses entering the brain stem reticular formation, the thalamus, and other lower brain centers cause conscious perception of pain. This does not mean that the cerebral cortex has nothing to do with normal pain appreciation; electrical stimulation of cortical somatosensory areas does cause a human being to perceive mild pain from about 3 per cent of the points stimulated. However, it is believed that the cortex plays an especially important role in interpreting pain quality, even though pain perception might be principally the function of lower centers.

Special Capability of Pain Signals to Arouse Overall Brain Excitability. Electrical stimulation in the reticular areas of the brain stem and in the intralaminar nuclei of the thalamus, the areas where the slow-suffering type of pain terminates, has a strong arousal effect on nervous activity throughout the entire brain. In fact, these two areas constitute part of the brain's principal "arousal system," which is discussed in Chapter 59.This explains why it is almost impossible for a person to sleep when he or she is in severe pain.

Surgical Interruption of Pain Pathways. When a person has severe and intractable pain (sometimes resulting from rapidly spreading cancer), it is necessary to relieve the pain. To do this, the pain nervous pathways can be cut at any one of several points. If the pain is in the lower part of the body, a cordotomy in the thoracic region of the spinal cord often relieves the pain for a few weeks to a few months. To do this, the spinal cord on the side opposite to the pain is partially cut in its anterolateral quadrant to interrupt the anterolateral sensory pathway.

A cordotomy, however, is not always successful in relieving pain, for two reasons. First, many pain fibers from the upper part of the body do not cross to the opposite side of the spinal cord until they have reached the brain, so that the cordotomy does not transect these fibers. Second, pain frequently returns several months later, partly as a result of sensitization of other pathways that normally are too weak to be effectual (e.g., sparse pathways in the dorsolateral cord). Another experimental operative procedure to relieve pain has been to cauterize specific pain areas in the intralaminar nuclei in the thalamus, which often relieves suffering types of pain while leaving intact one's appreciation of "acute" pain, an important protective mechanism.

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