Central neuroplasticity and pathological pain

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2001 Mar;933:157-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05822.x.


The traditional specificity theory of pain perception holds that pain involves a direct transmission system from somatic receptors to the brain. The amount of pain perceived, moreover, is assumed to be directly proportional to the extent of injury. Recent research, however, indicates far more complex mechanisms. Clinical and experimental evidence shows that noxious stimuli may sensitize central neural structures involved in pain perception. Salient clinical examples of these effects include amputees with pains in a phantom limb that are similar or identical to those felt in the limb before it was amputated, and patients after surgery who have benefited from preemptive analgesia which blocks the surgery-induced afferent barrage and/or its central consequences. Experimental evidence of these changes is illustrated by the development of sensitization, wind-up, or expansion of receptive fields of CNS neurons, as well as by the enhancement of flexion reflexes and the persistence of pain or hyperalgesia after inputs from injured tissues are blocked. It is clear from the material presented that the perception of pain does not simply involve a moment-to-moment analysis of afferent noxious input, but rather involves a dynamic process that is influenced by the effects of past experiences. Sensory stimuli act on neural systems that have been modified by past inputs, and the behavioral output is significantly influenced by the "memory" of these prior events. An increased understanding of the central changes induced by peripheral injury or noxious stimulation should lead to new and improved clinical treatment for the relief and prevention of pathological pain.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Analgesics / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics / pharmacology
  • Anesthetics / administration & dosage
  • Anesthetics / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping
  • Causalgia / physiopathology
  • Causalgia / psychology
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology*
  • Hyperalgesia / psychology
  • Learning / physiology
  • Memory / physiology
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Regeneration
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Management
  • Pain, Postoperative / physiopathology
  • Pain, Postoperative / prevention & control
  • Perception / physiology
  • Peripheral Nerve Injuries
  • Phantom Limb / physiopathology
  • Phantom Limb / prevention & control
  • Phantom Limb / psychology
  • Posterior Horn Cells / physiology
  • Premedication
  • Rats
  • Thalamus / physiopathology


  • Analgesics
  • Anesthetics