Does Threat Enlarge Nociceptive Reflex Receptive Fields?

Published:November 06, 2020DOI:


      • Threat engages endogenous top-down nociceptive circuitry.
      • Threat can amplify pain and spinal nociception.
      • Reflex receptive fields measure spinal nociception.
      • Threat enlarges reflex receptive fields.


      Threat-induced pain modulation can increase survival by amplifying physiological and behavioral reactions toward danger. Threat can also modulate spinal nociception, suggesting engagement of endogenous top-down circuitry. A unique method to assess spinal nociception is via reflex receptive fields (RRF) associated with the nociceptive withdrawal reflex (NWR, a protective spinally-mediated reflex). The size of nociceptive RRFs can be modulated by top-down circuitry with the enlargement of RRFs related to increased spinal nociception. Threat has been previously shown to enhance pain and spinal nociception, but the relationship between threat and RRFs has not been investigated. The present study investigated this issue in 25 healthy individuals. RRFs were determined from NWRs measured by electromyography of the tibialis anterior following electrocutaneous stimulations. RRFs and pain were assessed during periods in which participants were under threat of unpredictable painful abdominal stimulations and when they were not under threat. Results indicated that threat periods led to significantly higher pain, larger nociceptive RRFs and NWR magnitudes. These findings imply that threat produces changes in protective reflexes related to spinal nociceptive sensitivity and increased pain perception. This is likely mediated by top-down circuitry that enhances dorsal horn nociceptive neurons by enlarging RRFs and amplifying ascending pain signals.


      This article presents the enlargement of RRF during periods of threat. The results from this study may help clarify the mechanism underlining emotional modulation of spinal nociception.

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