Functional neuroimaging of visceral sensation

J Clin Neurophysiol. 2000 Nov;17(6):604-12. doi: 10.1097/00004691-200011000-00006.


The use of functional brain imaging techniques has led to considerable advances in our understanding of brain processing of human visceral sensation. The use of complementary techniques such as functional MRI, positron emission tomography, magnetoencephalography, and EEG has led to the identification of a network of brain areas that process visceral sensation. These studies suggest that unlike somatic sensation, which has an intense homuncular representation in the primary somatosensory cortex (SI), visceral sensation is primarily represented in the secondary somatosensory cortex, whereas representation in SI is vague. This difference could account for the poor localization of visceral sensation in comparison with somatic sensation. However, in a manner similar to that of somatic sensation, visceral sensation is represented in the paralimbic and limbic structures such as the insular, anterior cingulate, and prefrontal cortices. These areas are likely to mediate the affective and cognitive components of visceral sensation. Recent studies suggest that negative emotional factors such as fear, and cognitive factors such as attention can modulate the brain processing of visceral sensation in the insular and anterior cingulate cortices. In addition, alterations in the pattern of cortical processing of visceral sensation have been described in patients with functional gastrointestinal pain. It is likely that future research into the factors that modulate the brain processing of visceral sensation in health and disease are likely to improve further our understanding of the pathophysiology of functional visceral pain disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Esophagus / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed
  • Visceral Afferents / physiology*