Where pain meets action in the human brain

J Neurosci. 2013 Oct 2;33(40):15930-9. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3135-12.2013.


Pain's complex influence on behavior implies that it involves an action component, although little is known about how the human brain adaptively translates painful sensations into actions. The consistent activation of premotor and motor-related regions during pain, including the midcingulate cortex (MCC), raises the question of whether these areas contribute to an action component. In this fMRI experiment, we controlled for voluntary action-related processing during pain by introducing a motor task during painful or nonpainful stimulation. The MCC (particularly the caudal cingulate motor zone [CCZ]), motor cortex, thalamus, and cerebellum responded during action regardless of pain. Crucially, however, these regions did not respond to pain unless an action was performed. Reaction times were fastest during painful stimulation and correlated with CCZ activation. These findings are consistent with the results of an activation likelihood estimate meta-analysis in which activation across experiments involving pain, action execution, or action preparation (with a total of 4929 subjects) converged in a similar network. These findings suggest that specific motor-related areas, including the CCZ, play a vital role in the control and execution of context-sensitive behavioral responses to pain. In contrast, bilateral insular cortex responded to pain stimulation regardless of action.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain Threshold / physiology*
  • Physical Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology