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Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 16;59(2):1594-601. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.08.083. Epub 2011 Sep 8.

Turning on the alarm: the neural mechanisms of the transition from innocuous to painful sensation.

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Centre for Integrative Neuroscience & Neurodynamics, School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, Early Gate, Whiteknights, RG6 6AL, UK.


The experience of pain occurs when the level of a stimulus is sufficient to elicit a marked affective response, putatively to warn the organism of potential danger and motivate appropriate behavioral responses. Understanding the biological mechanisms of the transition from innocuous to painful levels of sensation is essential to understanding pain perception as well as clinical conditions characterized by abnormal relationships between stimulation and pain response. Thus, the primary objective of this study was to characterize the neural response associated with this transition and the correspondence between that response and subjective reports of pain. Towards this goal, this study examined BOLD response profiles across a range of temperatures spanning the pain threshold. 14 healthy adults underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while a range of thermal stimuli (44-49°C) were applied. BOLD responses showed a sigmoidal profile along the range of temperatures in a network of brain regions including insula and mid-cingulate, as well as a number of regions associated with motor responses including ventral lateral nuclei of the thalamus, globus pallidus and premotor cortex. A sigmoid function fit to the BOLD responses in these regions explained up to 85% of the variance in individual pain ratings, and yielded an estimate of the temperature of steepest transition from non-painful to painful heat that was nearly identical to that generated by subjective ratings. These results demonstrate a precise characterization of the relationship between objective levels of stimulation, resulting neural activation, and subjective experience of pain and provide direct evidence for a neural mechanism supporting the nonlinear transition from innocuous to painful levels along the sensory continuum.

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