The responses of primate spinothalamic tract cells innervating the glabrous skin of the foot to noxious thermal stimuli have been examined. Of the 41 cells studied, 98% responded to noxious thermal stimuli. Heating the cutaneous receptive field with a series of stimuli from 35 to 43, 45, 47, and 50°C produced a graded increase in discharge rate. The responses were characterized by an onset, which occurred after the temperature change had either slowed or stopped, an acceleration in the discharge up to a peak, and then an adaptation to a new base-line level. The time constants of adaptation were faster than those reported for C polymodal nociceptors. No systematic differences were found in the responses to noxious thermal stimuli of cells with wide dynamic range receptive fields and of cells with narrow dynamic range, high-threshold receptive fields. There were also no differences in the responses of cells located in the marginal zone and of cells located in the neck of the dorsal horn. The relationship between peak frequency and final skin temperature with a 30 s stimulus duration can best be described by a power function with an exponent of 2.1. An increase in the stimulus duration to 120 s resulted in an increase in the exponent of the power function to 3.2. Repetition of the series of 30-s heat stimuli resulted in an increase in peak frequency, total impulse count, and background activity. Repetition of stimuli having a duration of 120 s produced an increase in the peak frequency at 43 and 45°C, a smaller increase at 47°C, and a decrease at 50°C. Background activity was increased by the lower temperature stimuli, but was decreased following higher temperature stimuli. In six additional cells, the skin was heated with three consecutive presentations at each temperature level (43, 45, 47, and 50°C) for 30 s. No change was observed in the peak frequencies of the responses to successive stimuli of the same intensity. However, the exponent of the power function relating the average peak frequency for the six cells to changes in skin temperature was 3.9. This exponent was larger than that seen when two series of graded heat stimuli of 120 s duration were used, indicating more sensitization despite the fact the total time of exposure to noxious heat was less. A role for both high-threshold and wide dynamic range spinothalamic cells in transmitting nociceptive information to the diencephalon is postulated.
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