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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Jul 6;96(14):7668-74.

Forebrain mechanisms of nociception and pain: analysis through imaging.

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  • Neurology Service, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of Michigan, 2215 Fuller Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105, USA.


Pain is a unified experience composed of interacting discriminative, affective-motivational, and cognitive components, each of which is mediated and modulated through forebrain mechanisms acting at spinal, brainstem, and cerebral levels. The size of the human forebrain in relation to the spinal cord gives anatomical emphasis to forebrain control over nociceptive processing. Human forebrain pathology can cause pain without the activation of nociceptors. Functional imaging of the normal human brain with positron emission tomography (PET) shows synaptically induced increases in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in several regions specifically during pain. We have examined the variables of gender, type of noxious stimulus, and the origin of nociceptive input as potential determinants of the pattern and intensity of rCBF responses. The structures most consistently activated across genders and during contact heat pain, cold pain, cutaneous laser pain or intramuscular pain were the contralateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex, the bilateral thalamus and premotor cortex, and the cerebellar vermis. These regions are commonly activated in PET studies of pain conducted by other investigators, and the intensity of the brain rCBF response correlates parametrically with perceived pain intensity. To complement the human studies, we developed an animal model for investigating stimulus-induced rCBF responses in the rat. In accord with behavioral measures and the results of human PET, there is a progressive and selective activation of somatosensory and limbic system structures in the brain and brainstem following the subcutaneous injection of formalin. The animal model and human PET studies should be mutually reinforcing and thus facilitate progress in understanding forebrain mechanisms of normal and pathological pain.

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