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J Pain. 2008 Jun;9(6):543-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2008.01.340. Epub 2008 May 2.

Illusion of pain: pre-existing knowledge determines brain activation of 'imagined allodynia'.

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Department of Neurology, University of Mainz, Mainz, Germany.


Allodynia means that innocuous tactile stimulation is felt as pain. Accordingly, cerebral activations during allodynia or touch should markedly differ. The aim of this study was to investigate whether the imagination of allodynia affects brain processing of touch in healthy subjects. Seventeen healthy subjects divided into 2 subgroups were investigated: The first group (n = 7) was familiar with allodynia, based on previous pain studies, whereas the second group (n = 10) had never knowingly experienced allodynia. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, 2 experimental conditions were investigated. In one condition the subjects were simply touched at their left hand, whereas during the other condition they were asked to imagine pain (allodynia) during tactile stimulation of the right hand and to estimate the imagined pain on a numeric rating scale. Data processing and analysis were performed with the use of SPM5. The group analysis of all subjects revealed that tactile stimulation activated contralateral somatosensory cortices (S1 [primary] and S2 [secondary]), but the imagination of allodynia led to an additional activation of anterior cingulate cortex and bilateral activation of S2, insular cortex, and prefrontal cortices. Subgroup analysis using rating-weighted predictors revealed activation of the contralateral thalamus, anterior cingulate cortex, and amygdala and a bilateral activation of S1, S2, and insular cortex and prefrontal cortices in allodynia-experienced subjects. In contrast, allodynia-inexperienced subjects only activated contralateral S1 and bilateral S2. Just the imagination that touch is painful is able to partly activate the central pain system, but only when the subject has previous experience of this. According to our results, the medial pain system is involved in the encoding of imagined allodynia.


This article reports that pain experience is able to alter central processing of sensory stimuli. Pain knowledge appears to be able to shift "normal" tactile processing to a different quality, resulting in modified brain activity. Therefore, our study may contribute to the current understanding of human pain and will promote future research on this field.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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