The development of descending serotonergic modulation of the spinal nociceptive network: a life span perspective

Anne R. de Kort*, Elbert A.J. Joosten, Jacob Patijn, Dick Tibboel, Nynke J. van den Hoogen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

11 Citations (Web of Science)


Abstract: The nociceptive network, responsible for transmission of nociceptive signals that generate the pain experience, is not fully developed at birth. Descending serotonergic modulation of spinal nociception, an important part of the pain network, undergoes substantial postnatal maturation and is suggested to be involved in the altered pain response observed in human newborns. This review summarizes preclinical data of the development of descending serotonergic modulation of the spinal nociceptive network across the life span, providing a comprehensive background to understand human newborn pain experience and treatment. Sprouting of descending serotonergic axons, originating from the rostroventral medulla, as well as changes in receptor function and expression take place in the first postnatal weeks of rodents, corresponding to human neonates in early infancy. Descending serotonergic modulation switches from facilitation in early life to bimodal control in adulthood, masking an already functional 5-HT inhibitory system at early ages. Specifically the 5-HT3 and 5-HT7 receptors seem distinctly important for pain facilitation at neonatal and early infancy, while the 5-HT1a, 5-HT1b, and 5-HT2 receptors mediate inhibitory effects at all ages. Analgesic therapy that considers the neurodevelopmental phase is likely to result in a more targeted treatment of neonatal pain and may improve both short- and long-term effects. Impact: The descending serotonergic system undergoes anatomical changes from birth to early infancy, as its sprouts and descending projections increase and the dorsal horn innervation pattern changes.Descending serotonergic modulation from the rostral ventral medulla switches from facilitation in early life via the 5-HT3 and 5-HT7 receptors to bimodal control in adulthood.A functional inhibitory serotonergic system mainly via 5-HT1a, 5-HT1b, and 5-HT2a receptors at the spinal level exists already at the neonatal phase but is masked by descending facilitation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number91
Pages (from-to)1361-1369
Number of pages9
JournalPediatric Research
Issue number6
Early online date13 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2022

Bibliographical note

A.R.d.K. is financially supported by the Pain Knowledge Center from Maastricht and an institutional grant from University Maastricht, School Mental Health and Neuroscience.

Publisher Copyright: © 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to the International Pediatric Research Foundation, Inc.


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