The protooncogene c-fos is rapidly activated after noxious stimuli to express the protein Fos in spinal dorsal horn neurons that are in the 'correct' locations for nociceptive information transfer. As such, therefore, mapping Fos expression in these neurons is at present the best global marker for efficiently locating populations of neurons in the awake animal that respond to nociceptive input. This allows, among other things, precise behavioral measurements to be correlated with Fos expression. Two arenas where mapping dorsal horn Fos expression has made a major impact are in the anatomy of nociceptive systems and as a useful assay for the analgesic properties of various therapeutic regimens. Also Fos expression is the only way to map populations of neurons that are responding to non-localized input such as withdrawal after addiction and vascular occlusion. Another insight is that it shows a clear activation of neurons in superficial 'pain-processing' laminae by innocuous stimuli after nerve lesions, a finding that presumably bears on the allodynia that often accompanies these lesions. It is to be understood, however, that the Fos localizations are not sufficient unto themselves, but the major function of these studies is to efficiently locate populations of cells in nociceptive pathways so that powerful anatomic and physiologic techniques can be brought to bear efficiently. Thus, the purpose of this review is to summarize the studies whose numbers are geometrically expanding that deal with Fos in the dorsal horn and the conclusions therefrom.
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