The cortical representation of pain

Pain. 1999 Feb;79(2-3):105-11. doi: 10.1016/s0304-3959(98)00184-5.


Anatomical and physiological studies in animals, as well as functional imaging studies in humans have shown that multiple cortical areas are activated by painful stimuli. The view that pain is perceived only as a result of thalamic processing has, therefore, been abandoned, and has been replaced by the question of what functions can be assigned to individual cortical areas. The following cortical areas have been shown to be involved in the processing of painful stimuli: primary somatosensory cortex, secondary somatosensory cortex and its vicinity in the parietal operculum, insula, anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex. These areas probably process different aspects of pain in parallel. Previous psychophysical research has emphasized the importance of separating pain experience into sensory-discriminative and affective-motivational components. The sensory-discriminative component of pain can be considered a sensory modality similar to vision or olfaction; it becomes more and more evident that it is subserved by its own apparatus up to the cortical level. The affective-motivational component is close to what may be considered 'suffering from pain'; it is clearly related to aspects of emotion, arousal and the programming of behaviour. This dichotomy, however, has turned out to be too simple to explain the functional significance of nociceptive cortical networks. Recent progress in imaging technology has, therefore, provided a new impetus to study the multiple dimensions of pain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Pain / physiopathology*