Functional imaging of brain responses to pain. A review and meta-analysis (2000)

Neurophysiol Clin. 2000 Oct;30(5):263-88. doi: 10.1016/s0987-7053(00)00227-6.


Brain responses to pain, assessed through positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are reviewed. Functional activation of brain regions are thought to be reflected by increases in the regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in PET studies, and in the blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal in fMRI. rCBF increases to noxious stimuli are almost constantly observed in second somatic (SII) and insular regions, and in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and with slightly less consistency in the contralateral thalamus and the primary somatic area (SI). Activation of the lateral thalamus, SI, SII and insula are thought to be related to the sensory-discriminative aspects of pain processing. SI is activated in roughly half of the studies, and the probability of obtaining SI activation appears related to the total amount of body surface stimulated (spatial summation) and probably also by temporal summation and attention to the stimulus. In a number of studies, the thalamic response was bilateral, probably reflecting generalised arousal in reaction to pain. ACC does not seem to be involved in coding stimulus intensity or location but appears to participate in both the affective and attentional concomitants of pain sensation, as well as in response selection. ACC subdivisions activated by painful stimuli partially overlap those activated in orienting and target detection tasks, but are distinct from those activated in tests involving sustained attention (Stroop, etc.). In addition to ACC, increased blood flow in the posterior parietal and prefrontal cortices is thought to reflect attentional and memory networks activated by noxious stimulation. Less noted but frequent activation concerns motor-related areas such as the striatum, cerebellum and supplementary motor area, as well as regions involved in pain control such as the periaqueductal grey. In patients, chronic spontaneous pain is associated with decreased resting rCBF in contralateral thalamus, which may be reverted by analgesic procedures. Abnormal pain evoked by innocuous stimuli (allodynia) has been associated with amplification of the thalamic, insular and SII responses, concomitant to a paradoxical CBF decrease in ACC. It is argued that imaging studies of allodynia should be encouraged in order to understand central reorganisations leading to abnormal cortical pain processing. A number of brain areas activated by acute pain, particularly the thalamus and anterior cingulate, also show increases in rCBF during analgesic procedures. Taken together, these data suggest that hemodynamic responses to pain reflect simultaneously the sensory, cognitive and affective dimensions of pain, and that the same structure may both respond to pain and participate in pain control. The precise biochemical nature of these mechanisms remains to be investigated.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesia
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Gyrus Cinguli / diagnostic imaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hyperesthesia / physiopathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pain / diagnostic imaging
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Measurement
  • Parietal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Parietal Lobe / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Receptors, Opioid / drug effects
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiopathology
  • Subtraction Technique
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging
  • Thalamus / physiopathology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed


  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Oxygen