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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Serial pathways from primate prefrontal cortex to autonomic areas may influence emotional expression

Helen Barbas123*, Subhash Saha1, Nancy Rempel-Clower1 and Troy Ghashghaei1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Health Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215, USA

2 Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA

3 NEPRC, Harvard Medical School, Southborough, MA, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Neuroscience 2003, 4:25  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-4-25

Published: 10 October 2003

Abstract

Background

Experiencing emotions engages high-order orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal areas, and expressing emotions involves low-level autonomic structures and peripheral organs. How is information from the cortex transmitted to the periphery? We used two parallel approaches to map simultaneously multiple pathways to determine if hypothalamic autonomic centres are a key link for orbitofrontal areas and medial prefrontal areas, which have been associated with emotional processes, as well as low-level spinal and brainstem autonomic structures. The latter innervate peripheral autonomic organs, whose activity is markedly increased during emotional arousal.

Results

We first determined if pathways linking the orbitofrontal cortex with the hypothalamus overlapped with projection neurons directed to the intermediolateral column of the spinal cord, with the aid of neural tracers injected in these disparate structures. We found that axons from orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices converged in the hypothalamus with neurons projecting to brainstem and spinal autonomic centers, linking the highest with the lowest levels of the neuraxis. Using a parallel approach, we injected bidirectional tracers in the lateral hypothalamic area, an autonomic center, to label simultaneously cortical pathways leading to the hypothalamus, as well as hypothalamic axons projecting to low-level brainstem and spinal autonomic centers. We found densely distributed projection neurons in medial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices leading to the hypothalamus, as well as hypothalamic axonal terminations in several brainstem structures and the intermediolateral column of the spinal cord, which innervate peripheral autonomic organs. We then provided direct evidence that axons from medial prefrontal cortex synapse with hypothalamic neurons, terminating as large boutons, comparable in size to the highly efficient thalamocortical system. The interlinked orbitofrontal, medial prefrontal areas and hypothalamic autonomic centers were also connected with the amygdala.

Conclusions

Descending pathways from orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices, which are also linked with the amygdala, provide the means for speedy influence of the prefrontal cortex on the autonomic system, in processes underlying appreciation and expression of emotions.