Electrical stimulation of motor cortex for pain control: a combined PET-scan and electrophysiological study

Pain. 1999 Nov;83(2):259-73. doi: 10.1016/s0304-3959(99)00114-1.


Although electrical stimulation of the precentral gyrus (MCS) is emerging as a promising technique for pain control, its mechanisms of action remain obscure, and its application largely empirical. Using positron emission tomography (PET) we studied regional changes in cerebral flood flow (rCBF) in 10 patients undergoing motor cortex stimulation for pain control, seven of whom also underwent somatosensory evoked potentials and nociceptive spinal reflex recordings. The most significant MCS-related increase in rCBF concerned the ventral-lateral thalamus, probably reflecting cortico-thalamic connections from motor areas. CBF increases were also observed in medial thalamus, anterior cingulate/orbitofrontal cortex, anterior insula and upper brainstem; conversely, no significant CBF changes appeared in motor areas beneath the stimulating electrode. Somatosensory evoked potentials from SI remained stable during MCS, and no rCBF changes were observed in somatosensory cortex during the procedure. Our results suggest that descending axons, rather than apical dendrites, are primarily activated by MCS, and highlight the thalamus as the key structure mediating functional MCS effects. A model of MCS action is proposed, whereby activation of thalamic nuclei directly connected with motor and premotor cortices would entail a cascade of synaptic events in pain-related structures receiving afferents from these nuclei, including the medial thalamus, anterior cingulate and upper brainstem. MCS could influence the affective-emotional component of chronic pain by way of cingulate/orbitofrontal activation, and lead to descending inhibition of pain impulses by activation of the brainstem, also suggested by attenuation of spinal flexion reflexes. In contrast, the hypothesis of somatosensory cortex activation by MCS could not be confirmed by our results.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation*
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy*
  • Electrophysiology / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Somatosensory
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Cortex*
  • Pain / etiology
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain Management*
  • Reflex
  • Spinal Cord / physiopathology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed