Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system

L. U. Sneddon, V. A. Braithwaite, M. J. Gentle

Abstract

Nociception is the detection of a noxious tissue–damaging stimulus and is sometimes accompanied by a reflex response such as withdrawal. Pain perception, as distinct from nociception, has been demonstrated in birds and mammals but has not been systematically studied in lower vertebrates. We assessed whether a fish possessed cutaneous nociceptors capable of detecting noxious stimuli and whether its behaviour was sufficiently adversely affected by the administration of a noxious stimulus. Electrophysiological recordings from trigeminal nerves identified polymodal nociceptors on the head of the trout with physiological properties similar to those described in higher vertebrates. These receptors responded to mechanical pressure, temperatures in the noxious range (more than 40°C) and 1% acetic acid, a noxious substance. In higher vertebrates nociceptive nerves are either A–delta or C fibres with C fibres being the predominating fibre type. However, in the rainbow trout A–delta fibres were most common, and this offers insights into the evolution of nociceptive systems. Administration of noxious substances to the lips of the trout affected both the physiology and the behaviour of the animal and resulted in a significant increase in opercular beat rate and the time taken to resume feeding, as well as anomalous behaviours. This study provides significant evidence of nociception in teleost fishes and furthermore demonstrates that behaviour and physiology are affected over a prolonged period of time, suggesting discomfort.

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