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J Neurophysiol. 2003 Jun;89(6):3294-303. Epub 2003 Feb 12.

Differentiation of visceral and cutaneous pain in the human brain.

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  • 1Department of Physiology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec H3G 1Y6, Canada.


The widespread convergence of information from visceral, cutaneous, and muscle tissues onto CNS neurons invites the question of how to identify pain as being from the viscera. Despite referral of visceral pain to cutaneous areas, individuals regularly distinguish cutaneous and visceral pain and commonly have contrasting behavioral reactions to each. Our study addresses this dilemma by directly comparing human neural processing of intensity-equated visceral and cutaneous pain. Seven subjects underwent fMRI scanning during visceral and cutaneous pain produced by balloon distention of the distal esophagus and contact heat on the midline chest. Stimulus intensities producing nonpainful and painful sensations, interleaved with rest periods, were presented in each functional run. Analyses compared painful to nonpainful conditions. A similar neural network, including secondary somatosensory and parietal cortices, thalamus, basal ganglia, and cerebellum, was activated by visceral and cutaneous painful stimuli. However, cutaneous pain evoked higher activation bilaterally in the anterior insular cortex. Further, cutaneous but not esophageal pain activated ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, despite higher affective scores for visceral pain. Visceral but not cutaneous pain activated bilateral inferior primary somatosensory cortex, bilateral primary motor cortex, and a more anterior locus within anterior cingulate cortex. Our results reveal a common cortical network subserving cutaneous and visceral pain that could underlie similarities in the pain experience. However, we also observed differential activation patterns within insular, primary somatosensory, motor, and prefrontal cortices that may account for the ability to distinguish visceral and cutaneous pain as well as the differential emotional, autonomic and motor responses associated with these different sensations.

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