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Brain. 2002 Jun;125(Pt 6):1326-36.

Painful stimuli evoke different stimulus-response functions in the amygdala, prefrontal, insula and somatosensory cortex: a single-trial fMRI study.

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  • 1Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Neurology, Hamburg University Medical School, Germany.


Only recently have neuroimaging studies moved away from describing regions activated by noxious stimuli and started to disentangle subprocesses within the nociceptive system. One approach to characterizing the role of individual regions is to record brain responses evoked by different stimulus intensities. We used such a parametric single-trial functional MRI design in combination with a thulium:yttrium-aluminium-granate infrared laser and investigated pain, stimulus intensity and stimulus awareness (i.e. pain-unrelated) responses in nine healthy volunteers. Four stimulus intensities, ranging from warm to painful (300-600 mJ), were applied in a randomized order and rated by the subjects on a five-point scale (P0-4). Regions in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the intraparietal sulcus differentiated between P0 (not perceived) and P1 but exhibited no further signal increase with P2, and were related to stimulus perception and subsequent cognitive processing. Signal changes in the primary somatosensory cortex discriminated between non-painful trials (P0 and P1), linking this region to basic sensory processing. Pain-related regions in the secondary somatosensory cortex and insular cortex showed a response that did not distinguish between innocuous trials (P0 and P1) but showed a positive linear relationship with signal changes for painful trials (P2-4). This was also true for the amygdala, with the exception that, in P0 trials in which the stimulus was not perceived (i.e. 'uncertain' trials), the evoked signal changes were as great as in P3 trials, indicating that the amygdala is involved in coding 'uncertainty', as has been suggested previously in relation to classical conditioning.

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