Neuromodulation for Pain: A Comprehensive Survey and Systematic Review of Clinical Trials and Connectomic Analysis of Brain Targets

Stereotact Funct Neurosurg. 2022;100(1):14-25. doi: 10.1159/000517873. Epub 2021 Aug 11.


Background: Chronic pain is a debilitating condition that imposes a tremendous burden on health-care systems around the world. While frontline treatments for chronic pain involve pharmacological and psychological approaches, neuromodulation can be considered for treatment-resistant cases. Neuromodulatory approaches for pain are diverse in both modality and target and their mechanism of action is incompletely understood.

Objectives: The objectives of this study were to (i) understand the current landscape of pain neuromodulation research through a comprehensive survey of past and current registered clinical trials (ii) investigate the network underpinnings of these neuromodulatory treatments by performing a connectomic mapping analysis of cortical and subcortical brain targets that have been stimulated for pain relief.

Methods: A search for clinical trials involving pain neuromodulation was conducted using 2 major trial databases ( and the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform). Trials were categorized by variables and analyzed to gain an overview of the contemporary research landscape. Additionally, a connectomic mapping analysis was performed to investigate the network connectivity patterns of analgesic brain stimulation targets using a normative connectome based on a functional magnetic resonance imaging dataset.

Results: In total, 487 relevant clinical trials were identified. Noninvasive cortical stimulation and spinal cord stimulation trials represented 49.3 and 43.7% of this count, respectively, while deep brain stimulation trials accounted for <3%. The mapping analysis revealed that superficial target connectomics overlapped with deep target connectomics, suggesting a common pain network across the targets.

Conclusions: Research for pain neuromodulation is a rapidly growing field. Our connectomic network analysis reinforced existing knowledge of the pain matrix, identifying both well-described hubs and more obscure structures. Further studies are needed to decode the circuits underlying pain relief and determine the most effective targets for neuromodulatory treatment.

Keywords: Chronic pain; Clinical trials; Connectomic mapping analysis; Neuromodulation; Pain pathways.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Chronic Pain* / therapy
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Connectome* / methods
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Spinal Cord Stimulation*

Grant support