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Brain Res Rev. 2007 Oct;55(2):297-313. Epub 2007 Jun 12.

The somatosensory system, with emphasis on structures important for pain.

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Department of Neuroscience and Cell Biology, University of Texas Medical Branch, 301 University Boulevard, Galveston, TX 77555-1069, USA.


Santiago Ramón y Cajal described a number of somatosensory structures, including several associated with pain, in his major work on the Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates. Our knowledge of such structures has been considerably expanded since Cajal because of the introduction of a number of experimental approaches that were not available in his time. For example, Cajal made several drawings of peripheral mechanoreceptors, as well as of bare nerve endings, but later work by others described additional somatosensory receptors and investigated the ultrastructure of bare nerve endings. Furthermore, the transducer molecules responsible for responses to nociceptive, thermal or chemical stimuli are now becoming known, including a series of TRP (transient receptor potential) receptor molecules, such as TRPV1 (the capsaicin receptor). Cajal described the development of dorsal root and other sensory ganglion cells and related the disposition of their somata and neurites to his theory of the functional polarity of neurons. He described the entry of both large and small afferent fibers into the spinal cord, including the projections of their collaterals into different parts of the gray matter and into different white matter tracts. He described a number of types of neurons in the gray matter, including ones in the marginal zone, substantia gelatinosa and head and neck of the dorsal horn. He found neurons in the deep dorsal horn whose dendrites extend dorsally into the superficial dorsal horn. Some of these neurons have since been shown by retrograde labeling to be spinothalamic tract cells. Cajal clearly described the dorsal column/medial lemniscus pathway, but the presence and course of the spinothalamic tract was unknown at the time.

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