Neuronal Circuits that Modulate Pain and Defensive Responses

The axons of oxytocin-producing neurons (cyan) interact with brainstem pre-motor neurons (magenta) that drive escape responses.

Understanding pain-processing mechanisms and the neural circuits involved is central to developing new therapeutic strategies for the treatment of pain. The Douglass lab investigated brain regions that modulate behavioral responses to noxious stimuli in zebrafish. They showed that oxytocin-producing neurons in the hypothalamus are central mediators of the behavioral response to pain, recruit targets in the brainstem that drive escape responses, and function as neuromodulators. This specialized sensorimotor circuit is essential for mediating defensive responses to pain- and injury-causing stimuli.

Adam Douglass, Ph.D. Photo credit: Charlie Ehlert


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Zebrafish oxytocin neurons drive nocifensive behavior via brainstem premotor targets. Wee CL, Nikitchenko M, Wang WC, Luks-Morgan SJ, Song E, Gagnon JA, Randlett O, Bianco IH, Lacoste AMB, Glushenkova E, Barrios, JP, Schier AF, Kunes S, Engert F, Douglass AD. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Sep;22(9):1477.

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