Brainstem involvement in the initial response to pain

Neuroimage. 2004 Jun;22(2):995-1005. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.01.046.


The autonomic responses to acute pain exposure usually habituate rapidly while the subjective ratings of pain remain high for more extended periods of time. Thus, systems involved in the autonomic response to painful stimulation, for example the hypothalamus and the brainstem, would be expected to attenuate the response to pain during prolonged stimulation. This suggestion is in line with the hypothesis that the brainstem is specifically involved in the initial response to pain. To probe this hypothesis, we performed a positron emission tomography (PET) study where we scanned subjects during the first and second minute of a prolonged tonic painful cold stimulation (cold pressor test) and nonpainful cold stimulation. Galvanic skin response (GSR) was recorded during the PET scanning as an index of autonomic sympathetic response. In the main effect of pain, we observed increased activity in the thalamus bilaterally, in the contralateral insula and in the contralateral anterior cingulate cortex but no significant increases in activity in the primary or secondary somatosensory cortex. The autonomic response (GSR) decreased with stimulus duration. Concomitant with the autonomic response, increased activity was observed in brainstem and hypothalamus areas during the initial vs. the late stimulation. This effect was significantly stronger for the painful than for the cold stimulation. Activity in the brainstem showed pain-specific covariation with areas involved in pain processing, indicating an interaction between the brainstem and cortical pain networks. The findings indicate that areas in the brainstem are involved in the initial response to noxious stimulation, which is also characterized by an increased sympathetic response.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Brain Stem / physiopathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Functional Laterality
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiopathology