Operant conditioning of enhanced pain sensitivity by heat-pain titration

Pain. 2008 Nov 15;140(1):104-114. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2008.07.018. Epub 2008 Sep 5.


Operant conditioning mechanisms have been demonstrated to be important in the development of chronic pain. Most experimental studies have investigated the operant modulation of verbal pain reports with extrinsic reinforcement, such as verbal reinforcement. Whether this reflects actual changes in the subjective experience of the nociceptive stimulus remained unclear. This study replicates and extends our previous demonstration that enhanced pain sensitivity to prolonged heat-pain stimulation could be learned in healthy participants through intrinsic reinforcement (contingent changes in nociceptive input) independent of verbal pain reports. In addition, we examine whether different magnitudes of reinforcement differentially enhance pain sensitivity using an operant heat-pain titration paradigm. It is based on the previously developed non-verbal behavioral discrimination task for the assessment of sensitization, which uses discriminative down- or up-regulation of stimulus temperatures in response to changes in subjective intensity. In operant heat-pain titration, this discriminative behavior and not verbal pain report was contingently reinforced or punished by acute decreases or increases in heat-pain intensity. The magnitude of reinforcement was varied between three groups: low (N1=13), medium (N2=11) and high reinforcement (N3=12). Continuous reinforcement was applied to acquire and train the operant behavior, followed by partial reinforcement to analyze the underlying learning mechanisms. Results demonstrated that sensitization to prolonged heat-pain stimulation was enhanced by operant learning within 1h. The extent of sensitization was directly dependent on the received magnitude of reinforcement. Thus, operant learning mechanisms based on intrinsic reinforcement may provide an explanation for the gradual development of sustained hypersensitivity during pain that is becoming chronic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Conditioning, Operant*
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature*
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain Threshold*
  • Young Adult