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.
Animals have evolved specialized neural circuits to defend themselves from pain- and injury-causing stimuli. Using a combination of optical, behavioral and genetic approaches in the larval zebrafish, we describe a novel role for hypothalamic oxytocin (OXT) neurons in the processing of noxious stimuli. In vivo imaging revealed that a large and distributed fraction of zebrafish OXT neurons respond strongly to noxious inputs, including the activation of damage-sensing TRPA1 receptors. OXT population activity reflects the sensorimotor transformation of the noxious stimulus, with some neurons encoding sensory information and others correlating more strongly with large-angle swims. Notably, OXT neuron activation is sufficient to generate this defensive behavior via the recruitment of brainstem premotor targets, whereas ablation of OXT neurons or loss of the peptide attenuates behavioral responses to TRPA1 activation. These data highlight a crucial role for OXT neurons in the generation of appropriate defensive responses to noxious input.