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Emotions, Affect, and the Limbic System 

Emotions, Affect, and the Limbic System
Chapter:
Emotions, Affect, and the Limbic System
Author(s):

Kenneth L. Casey

DOI:
10.1093/med/9780190880231.003.0005
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date: 03 April 2020

During the early 20th century, a series of animal experiments showed that, following ablation of central nervous system structures that spared only the upper brainstem and spinal cord, noxious stimulation could evoke behavior that was defensive and threatening and that resembled emotional expression if the spinothalamic tract remained intact. Subsequent clinical observations, animal behavioral experiments, and anatomical studies showed that the spinothalamic tract activates brain structures supporting not only somatic and visceral sensory functions but also those structures (later called a “limbic system”) responsible for visceral (e.g., cardiovascular) responses, endocrine reactions, emotional expression, and, in sentient animals, hedonic (affective) experience. Pain could then be conceived as synthesized from the conjoint action of sensory and hedonic (limbic) systems, leading to the ablation of some limbic system structures for chronic pain. The spinothalamic neurons activating these brain mechanisms respond either exclusively to noxious stimuli (nociceptive-specific neurons) or to a wide dynamic range that includes innocuous stimulation.

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