Diffuse optical tomography activation in the somatosensory cortex: specific activation by painful vs. non-painful thermal stimuli

PLoS One. 2009 Nov 24;4(11):e8016. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008016.


Background: Pain is difficult to assess due to the subjective nature of self-reporting. The lack of objective measures of pain has hampered the development of new treatments as well as the evaluation of current ones. Functional MRI studies of pain have begun to delineate potential brain response signatures that could be used as objective read-outs of pain. Using Diffuse Optical Tomography (DOT), we have shown in the past a distinct DOT signal over the somatosensory cortex to a noxious heat stimulus that could be distinguished from the signal elicited by innocuous mechanical stimuli. Here we further our findings by studying the response to thermal innocuous and noxious stimuli.

Methodology/principal findings: Innocuous and noxious thermal stimuli were applied to the skin of the face of the first division (ophthalmic) of the trigeminal nerve in healthy volunteers (N = 6). Stimuli temperatures were adjusted for each subject to evoke warm (equivalent to a 3/10) and painful hot (7/10) sensations in a verbal rating scale (0/10 = no/max pain). A set of 26 stimuli (5 sec each) was applied for each temperature with inter-stimulus intervals varied between 8 and 15 sec using a Peltier thermode. A DOT system was used to capture cortical responses on both sides of the head over the primary somatosensory cortical region (S1). For the innocuous stimuli, group results indicated mainly activation on the contralateral side with a weak ipsilateral response. For the noxious stimuli, bilateral activation was observed with comparable amplitudes on both sides. Furthermore, noxious stimuli produced a temporal biphasic response while innocuous stimuli produced a monophasic response.

Conclusions/significance: These results are in accordance with fMRI and our other DOT studies of innocuous mechanical and noxious heat stimuli. The data indicate the differentiation of DOT cortical responses for pain vs. innocuous stimuli that may be useful in assessing objectively acute pain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain
  • Software
  • Somatosensory Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / pathology*
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors
  • Tomography, Optical / methods*
  • Trigeminal Nerve / pathology