Background & aims: Brain loci that process human esophageal sensation remain unidentified. The aim of this study was to identify the brain loci that process nonpainful and painful human esophageal sensation.
Methods: In 8 healthy subjects (7 men; age range, 24-47 years), distal esophageal stimulation was performed by repeatedly inflating a balloon at volumes that produced either no sensation, definite sensation, or pain. Two positron emission tomography scans were performed for each sensation using H2(15)O. Magnetic resonance brain scans were also performed in each subject, and the positron emission tomography data were coregistered with magnetic resonance scans. Analysis of covariance-corrected t images showing the contrasts definite sensation-baseline, pain-baseline, and pain-definite sensation were created.
Results: Nonpainful stimulation elicited bilateral activations along the central sulcus, insular cortex, and frontal/parietal operculum (P < 0.01). Painful stimulation produced more intense activations of the same areas and additional activation of the right anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus. Multiple areas of decreased activation were also observed; prominent among these was the right prefrontal cortex, which was inhibited during both nonpainful and painful stimulation.
Conclusions: Esophageal sensation activates bilaterally the insula, primary somatosensory cortex, and operculum. The right anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate gyrus process esophageal pain.