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PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27075. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027075. Epub 2011 Nov 11.

Evidence for thalamic involvement in the thermal grill illusion: an FMRI study.

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Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Stockholm Brain Institute, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.



Perceptual illusions play an important role in untangling neural mechanisms underlying conscious phenomena. The thermal grill illusion (TGI) has been suggested as a promising model for exploring percepts involved in neuropathic pain, such as cold-allodynia (pain arising from contact with innocuous cold). The TGI is an unpleasant/painful sensation from touching juxtapositioned bars of cold and warm innocuous temperatures.


To develop an MRI-compatible TGI-unit and explore the supraspinal correlates of the illusion, using fMRI, in a group of healthy volunteers.


We constructed a TGI-thermode allowing the rapid presentation of warm(41°C), cold(18°C) and interleaved(41°C+18°C = TGI) temperatures in an fMRI-environment. Twenty volunteers were tested. The affective-motivational ("unpleasantness") and sensory-disciminatory ("pain-intensity") dimensions of each respective stimulus were rated. Functional images were analyzed at a corrected α-level <0.05.


The TGI was rated as significantly more unpleasant and painful than stimulation with each of its constituent temperatures. Also, the TGI was rated as significantly more unpleasant than painful. Thermal stimulation versus neutral baseline revealed bilateral activations of the anterior insulae and fronto-parietal regions. Unlike its constituent temperatures the TGI displayed a strong activation of the right (contralateral) thalamus. Exploratory contrasts at a slightly more liberal threshold-level also revealed a TGI-activation of the right mid/anterior insula, correlating with ratings of unpleasantness (rho = 0.31).


To the best of our knowledge, this is the first fMRI-study of the TGI. The activation of the anterior insula is consistent with this region's putative role in processing of homeostatically relevant feeling-states. Our results constitute the first neurophysiologic evidence of thalamic involvement in the TGI. Similar thalamic activity has previously been observed during evoked cold-allodynia in patients with central neuropathic pain. Our results further the understanding of the supraspinal correlates of the TGI-phenomenon and pave the way for future inquiries into if and how it may relate to neuropathic pain.

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