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Mapping of neural activity produced by thermal pain in the healthy human spinal cord and brain stem: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study.

  • Author(s): Cahill, Catherine M
  • Stroman, Patrick W
  • et al.
Abstract

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has greatly advanced our current understanding of pain, although most studies to date have focused on imaging of cortical structures. In the present study, we have used fMRI at 3 T to investigate the neural activity evoked by thermal sensation and pain (42 °C and 46 °C) throughout the entire lower neuroaxis from the first synapse in the spinal cord rostral to the thalamus in healthy subjects. The results demonstrate that noxious thermal stimulation (46 °C) produces consistent activity within various structures known to be involved in the pain matrix including the dorsal spinal cord, reticular formation, periaqueductal gray and rostral ventral medulla. However, additional areas of activity were evident that are not considered to be part of the pain matrix, including the olivary nucleus. Thermal stimulation (42 °C) reported as either not painful or mildly painful produced quantitative, but not qualitative, differences in neuronal activity depending on the order of experiments. Activity was greater in the spinal cord and brain stem in earlier experiments, compared with repeated experiments after the more noxious (46 °C) stimulus had been applied. This study provides significant insight into how the lower neuroaxis integrates and responds to pain in humans.

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