Earl Carstens

image of Earl Carstens

Distinguished Professor


Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior

Offices and Labs

193 Briggs Hall
(530) 752-7767
(530) 752-7767

Profile Introduction

Functional organization of pain and itch sensory systems


1977 PhD (Neurobiology) University of North Carolina
1972 BS (Biology) Cornell University

Research Interests

Our laboratory investigates neural mechanisms of oral and cutaneous chemical irritation, pain, itch and temperature sensation. We employ a variety of methodological approaches including human psychophysics, animal behavior, neuroanatomy, and electrophysiology including in vivo and in vitro neuronal recording. We currently have local collaborations with the departments of anesthesiology and pain medicine (Drs. Antognini and Jinks) and food science (Dr. O'Mahony) as well as international collaborations with Toyama University (Japan), University Paris 7, and Georgia State University (Rep. of Georgia).

Until recently, little was known about central nervous mechanisms underlying oral irritation. We employ a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the sensory effects of irritant chemicals, such as capsaicin (from red chili peppers), menthol (from mint), cinnamic aldehyde (from cinnamon), mustard oil, and carbonation and other agents causing tingle. Ongoing studies address the extent to which the temporal response characteristics of trigeminal and spinal cord neurons parallel human irritant sensations, as well as possible transduction mechanisms involving the recently-discovered family of thermosensitive TRP (transient receptor potential) ion channels.

Another research area that has until recently received little attention is itch. We use behavioral and neurophysiological approaches to address the question of whether or not itch and pain sensations are conveyed by separate neural pathways and how these sensory qualities interact. Of particular interest is the ability of several itch mediators (proteases, serotonin, histamine) to elicit prolonged scratching behavior in rodents and excitation of superficial spinal dorsal horn neurons over comparable time courses.

Functional organization of pain and itch sensory systems

Department and Center Affiliations

Center for Neuroscience


Soc. for Neuroscience; Assoc. for Chemoreception Sciences; Intl. Assoc. for the Study of Pain; Int. Forum for the Study of Itch

CBS Grad Group Affiliations

Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology

Specialties / Focus

  • Systems Neuroscience
Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology
  • Neurophysiology

Graduate Groups not Housed in CBS

Food Science Graduate Group


Carstens Lab
  • Carstens Lab: Earl Carstens, Mirela Iodi Carstens, Carolyn Sawyer, Tasuku Akiyama, Amanda Klein

Teaching Interests



NPB 112 (neuroscience); MCIP 210B (neurophysiology), NSC 222 (sensory neuroscience) (Fall,Winter)


5/21/2010 9:26:34 AM
  • Sawyer CM, Iodi Carstens M, Simons CT, Slack UJ, McCluskey TS, Furrer S, Carstens E. Activation of lumbar spinal wide-dynamic range neurons by a sanshool derivative. J Neurophysiol. 101:1742-1748, 2009.
  • Merrill AW, Cuellar JM, Judd JH, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Effects of TRPA1 agonists mustard oil and cinnamaldehyde on lumbar spinal wide dynamic range neuronal responses to innocuous and noxious cutaneous stimuli in rats. J. Neurophysiol. 99(2):415-425, 2008.
  • Barter LS, Mark LO, Jinks SL, Carstens EE, Antognini JF. Immobilizing Doses of Halothane, Isoflurane or Propofol, Do Not Preferentially Depress Noxious Heat-Evoked Responses of Rat Lumbar Dorsal Horn Neurons with Ascending Projections. Anesth Analg. 106(3):985-990, 2008.
  • Albin KC, Carstens MI, Carstens E. Modulation of Oral Heat and Cold Pain by Irritant Chemicals. Chem Senses 33(1):3-15, 2008.
  • Dutton RC, Cuellar JM, Eger, EI, Antognini JF, Carstens E. Temporal and Spatial Determinants of Sacral Dorsal Horn Neuronal Windup in Relation to Isoflurane-induced Immobility. Anesthesia & Analgesia 105 (6):1665-1674, 2007.
  • Zanotto K, Merrill AW, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Neurons in superficial trigeminal subnucleus caudalis responsive to oral cooling, menthol and other irritant stimuli. J. Neurophysiol. 97(2):966-78, 2007.
  • Simons CT, Boucher Y, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Nicotine suppression of gustatory responses of neurons in the nucleus of the solitary tract. J Neurophysiol. 96: 1877-1886, 2006.
  • Dutton RC, Iodi Carstens M, Antognini JF, Carstens E. Long ascending propriospinal projections from lumbosacral to upper cervical spinal cord in the rat. Brain Research 1119, 76-85, 2006.
  • Akiyama T, Merrill AW, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Activation of superficial dorsal horn neurons in the mouse by a PAR-2 agonist and 5-HT: potential role in itch. J Neurosci. 29(20):6691-6699. 2009.
  • Akiyama T, Merrill AW, Zanotto K, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Scratching behavior and Fos expression in superficial dorsal horn elicited by protease-activated receptor agonists and other itch mediators in mice. J Pharmacol Exp Therap. 329(3):945-951, 2009.
  • Jinks SL, Carstens E, Antognini JF. Nitrous oxide-induced analgesia does not influence nitrous oxide's immobilizing requirements. Anesth Analg 109(4):1111-1116, 2009.
  • Sawyer CM, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Mustard oil enhances spinal neuronal responses to noxious heat but not cooling. Neurosci. Letters 61(3):271-274, 2009.
  • Akiyama T, Iodi Carstens M, Carstens E. Excitation of mouse superficial dorsal horn neurons by histamine and/or PAR-2 agonist: potential role in itch. J Neurophysiol. 102:2176-2183, 2009.