Sarah Ross, PhD Assistant Professor, Neurobiology
Functional Organization of Spinal Somatosensory Circuits
The spinal cord plays a critical role in processing somatosensory information—touch, temperature, pain and itch. Our lab is interested in characterizing these spinal microcircuits. This knowledge is important because dysfunction of these neural circuits can lead to pathological conditions of chronic pain and itch.
Our lab uses a combination of approaches to dissect these neural circuits:
- Generate novel genetic tools to study populations of spinal neurons
- Perform axon circuit mapping using viruses
- Elucidate neural coding using optogenetics and electrophysiology
- Study sensory behavior using chemogenetic approaches
Recently, our lab has developed a novel, semi-intact somatosensory preparation that allows us to probe spinal circuits with unprecedented power (FIGURE 1). This approach gives us, for the first time, the ability to record from the output neurons (via retrograde labeling of spinal projection neurons) while we control somatosensory input (via natural stimulation of the skin) and simultaneously manipulate activity of specific populations of spinal interneurons (via the combination of Cre alleles and optogenetics).
The goal of this proposal is to use this newly developed physiological preparation to address long-standing questions in the field of somatosensation such as: How is itch distinguished from pain? How does scratching relieve itch? What mechanisms cause the abnormal amplification of pain?
Significance: Improved understanding of the neural basis of pain and itch is of clinical relevance to millions of people worldwide that suffer from clinical conditions, particularly chronic pain, that result from of maladaptive changes in neural circuitry.