Colonic afferent input and dorsal horn neuron activation differs between the thoracolumbar and lumbosacral spinal cord

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The distal colon is innervated by the splanchnic and pelvic nerves, which relay into the thoracolumbar and lumbosacral spinal cord, respectively. Although the peripheral properties of the colonic afferent nerves within these pathways are well studied, their input into the spinal cord remain ill defined. The use of dual retrograde tracing from the colon wall and lumen, in conjunction with in vivo colorectal distension and spinal neuronal activation labeling with phosphorylated MAPK ERK 1/2 (pERK), allowed us to identify thoracolumbar and lumbosacral spinal cord circuits processing colonic afferent input. In the thoracolumbar dorsal horn, central projections of colonic afferents were primarily labeled from the wall of the colon and localized in laminae I and V. In contrast, lumbosacral projections were identified from both lumen and wall tracing, present within various dorsal horn laminae, collateral tracts, and the dorsal gray commissure. Nonnoxious in vivo colorectal distension evoked significant neuronal activation (pERK-immunoreactivity) within the lumbosacral dorsal horn but not in thoracolumbar regions. However, noxious in vivo colorectal distension evoked significant neuronal activation in both the thoracolumbar and lumbosacral dorsal horn, with the distribution of activated neurons correlating to the pattern of traced projections. Dorsal horn neurons activated by colorectal distension were identified as possible populations of projection neurons or excitatory and inhibitory interneurons based on their neurochemistry. Our findings demonstrate how colonic afferents in splanchnic and pelvic pathways differentially relay mechanosensory information into the spinal cord and contribute to the recruitment of spinal cord pathways processing non-noxious and noxious stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)G285-G303
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished or Issued - Sep 2019


  • Colonic afferent
  • Colorectal distension
  • Neuroanatomy
  • Spinal cord
  • Visceral pain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Hepatology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Physiology (medical)

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