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Excitatory interneurons account for the majority of neurons in the superficial dorsal horn, but despite their presumed contribution to pain and itch, there is still limited information about their organisation and function. We recently identified two populations of excitatory interneuron defined by expression of gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) or substance P (SP). Here we demonstrate that these cells show major differences in their morphological, electrophysiological and pharmacological properties. Based on their somatodendritic morphology and firing patterns, we propose that the SP cells correspond to radial cells, which generally show delayed firing. In contrast, most GRP cells show transient or single-spike firing, and many are likely to correspond to the so-called transient central cells. Unlike the SP cells, few of the GRP cells had long propriospinal projections, suggesting that they are involved primarily in local processing. The two populations also differed in responses to neuromodulators, with most SP cells, but few GRP cells, responding to noradrenaline and 5-HT; the converse was true for responses to the μ-opioid agonist DAMGO. Although a recent study suggested that GRP cells are innervated by nociceptors and are strongly activated by noxious stimuli [60], we found that very few GRP cells receive direct synaptic input from TRPV1-expressing afferents, and that they seldom phosphorylate extracellular signal-regulated kinases in response to noxious stimuli. These findings indicate that the SP and GRP cells differentially process somatosensory information.This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.The work cannot be changed in any way or used commercially without permission from the journal.

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Spinal Cord Group, Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.