A functional subdivision within the somatosensory system and its implications for pain research

Author: Qiufu Ma1
1 Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Department of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. Electronic address: qiufu_ma@dfci.harvard.edu.
Conference/Journal: Neuron
Date published: 2022 Jan 5
Other: Special Notes: doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2021.12.015. , Word Count: 156

Somatosensory afferents are traditionally classified by soma size, myelination, and their response specificity to external and internal stimuli. Here, we propose the functional subdivision of the nociceptive somatosensory system into two branches. The exteroceptive branch detects external threats and drives reflexive-defensive reactions to prevent or limit injury. The interoceptive branch senses the disruption of body integrity, produces tonic pain with strong aversive emotional components, and drives self-caring responses toward to the injured region to reduce suffering. The central thesis behind this functional subdivision comes from a reflection on the dilemma faced by the pain research field, namely, the use of reflexive-defensive behaviors as surrogate assays for interoceptive tonic pain. The interpretation of these assays is now being challenged by the discovery of distinct but interwoven circuits that drive exteroceptive versus interoceptive types of behaviors, with the conflation of these two components contributing partially to the poor translation of therapies from preclinical studies.

PMID: 35016037 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2021.12.015