Subjective pain perception mediated by alpha rhythms

Biol Psychol. 2015 Jul:109:141-50. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.05.004. Epub 2015 May 28.


Suppression of spontaneous alpha oscillatory activities, interpreted as cortical excitability, was observed in response to both transient and tonic painful stimuli. The changes of alpha rhythms induced by pain could be modulated by painful sensory inputs, experimental tasks, and top-down cognitive regulations such as attention. The temporal and spatial characteristics, as well as neural functions of pain induced alpha responses, depend much on how these factors contribute to the observed alpha event-related desynchronization/synchronization (ERD/ERS). How sensory-, task-, and cognitive-related changes of alpha oscillatory activities interact in pain perception process is reviewed in the current study, and the following conclusions are made: (1) the functional inhibition hypothesis that has been proposed in auditory and visual modalities could be applied also in pain modality; (2) the neural functions of pain induced alpha ERD/ERS were highly dependent on the cortical regions where it is observed, e.g., somatosensory cortex alpha ERD/ERS in pain perception for painful stimulus processing; (3) the attention modulation of pain perception, i.e., influences on the sensory and affective dimensions of pain experience, could be mediated by changes of alpha rhythms. Finally, we propose a model regarding the determinants of pain related alpha oscillatory activity, i.e., sensory-discriminative, affective-motivational, and cognitive-modulative aspects of pain experience, would affect and determine pain related alpha oscillatory activities in an integrated way within the distributed alpha system.

Keywords: Affective-motivational; Alpha rhythms; Cognitive-modulative; Pain perception; Sensory-discriminative.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography Phase Synchronization / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Pain Perception / physiology*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*