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Electrocutaneous stimulus setting for identification of the ascending nociceptive pathway


Malfunctioning of the ascending nociceptive pathway plays a key role in the development of chronic pain, e.g. central sensitization. In psychophysical experiments, subject's binary responses are measured during applying electrocutaneous stimulation. The stimulation delivers a square waveform parameterized by three temporal parameters, number of pulses (NoP), inter-pulse interval (IPI), pulse width (PW), and amplitude of the current (IA). These are the input-output measurements of this pathway accounting for peripheral activation, firing rate, synaptic transfer and supraspinal activation (Figure 1A). The relevant neurophysiological parameters may reflect the state of nociceptive system. To provide sufficient information to get the values of these parameters, multiple combinations of the settings in stimulus parameters are required. The challenge is to develop a reliable algorithm to estimate the parameters and to find an optimal stimulus setting.

Figure 1
figure 1

A: Neurophysiology of the ascending pathway; B: Model; C: Estimation and stimulus setting influence.


We model this pathway as a cascaded two leaky integrate-and-fire models followed by a nonlinear binary detector at the supraspinal level (Figure 1B). A white noise source presents at the output of neuronal activity. The model has five unknown parameters: two time constants (τ1, τ2 [msec]), two compound gain-threshold parameters (α1, α2) and standard deviation of the neuronal noise (σε). The multiple combinations of stimulus settings depend on two variables IPIt and PWt [msec] (Table 1). Using each setting to generate an artificial dataset, we estimate the parameters by maximizing the likelihood function of these parameters and the stimulus-response dataset. Varying IPIt and PWt, we look for an optimal setting of the stimulus.


For each setting, we present estimation errors in a cumulative distribution with particular values of the parameters, θ= (τ1 = 0.2, τ2 = 20, α1 = 0.1, α2 = 0.04, σε = 0.005). The chance with an estimation error below 17% is a half when IPIt is 10 and PWt is 0.2. Furthermore, we show the median of the estimation error in a 2D plot with varying IPIt and PWt.


To identify the ascending nociceptive pathway, we have proposed an estimation approach using stimulus-response measurements. Optimal temporal settings of stimulus are found for a reliable estimation within the region of IPIt 10-25 [msec] and PWt 0.15-0.4 [msec].


This research is supported by the Dutch Technology Foundation STW, which is part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and partly funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation.

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Correspondence to Huan Yang.

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Yang, H., Buitenweg, J.R. & Meijer, H.G. Electrocutaneous stimulus setting for identification of the ascending nociceptive pathway. BMC Neurosci 14 (Suppl 1), P272 (2013).

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