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Pain and Its Modulation  

Asaf Keller

Sensory perceptions are inherently subjective, being influenced by factors such as expectation, attention, affect, and past experiences. Nowhere is this more commonly experienced than with the perception of pain, whose perceived intensity and emotional impact can fluctuate rapidly. The perception of pain in response to the same nociceptive signal can also vary substantially between individuals. Pain is not only a sensory experience. It also involves profound affective and cognitive dimensions, reflecting the activation of and interactions among multiple brain regions. The modulation of pain perception by such interactions has been most extensively characterized in the context of the “descending pain modulatory system.” This system includes a variety of pathways that directly or indirectly modulate the activity of neurons in the spinal dorsal horn, the second-order neurons that receive inputs directly from nociceptors. Less understood are the interactions among brain regions that modulate the affective and cognitive aspects of pain perception. Emerging data suggest that certain pain conditions result from dysfunction in pain modulation, suggesting that targeting these dysfunctions might have therapeutic value. Some therapies that are thought to target pain modulation pathways—such as cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and placebo analgesia—are safer and less expensive than pharmacologic or surgical approaches, further emphasizing the importance of understanding these modulatory mechanisms. Understanding the mechanisms through which pain modulation functions may also illuminate fundamental mechanisms of perception and consciousness.