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J Neurosci. 2004 Aug 11;24(32):7199-203.

Perceived controllability modulates the neural response to pain.

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  • 1W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.


The response to painful stimulation depends not only on peripheral nociceptive input but also on the cognitive and affective context in which pain occurs. One contextual variable that affects the neural and behavioral response to nociceptive stimulation is the degree to which pain is perceived to be controllable. Previous studies indicate that perceived controllability affects pain tolerance, learning and motivation, and the ability to cope with intractable pain, suggesting that it has profound effects on neural pain processing. To date, however, no neuroimaging studies have assessed these effects. We manipulated the subjects' belief that they had control over a nociceptive stimulus, while the stimulus itself was held constant. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that pain that was perceived to be controllable resulted in attenuated activation in the three neural areas most consistently linked with pain processing: the anterior cingulate, insular, and secondary somatosensory cortices. This suggests that activation at these sites is modulated by cognitive variables, such as perceived controllability, and that pain imaging studies may therefore overestimate the degree to which these responses are stimulus driven and generalizable across cognitive contexts.

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