Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Neural Mechanisms Underlying Pain's Ability to Reorient Attention: Evidence for Sensitization of Somatic Threat Detectors

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Neural Mechanisms Underlying Pain's Ability to Reorient Attention: Evidence for Sensitization of Somatic Threat Detectors

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 December 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Pain typically signals damage to the body, and as such can be perceived as threatening and can elicit a strong emotional response. This ecological significance undoubtedly underlies pain's well-known ability to demand attention. However, the neural mechanisms underlying this ability are poorly understood. Previous work from the author's laboratory has reported behavioral evidence suggesting that participants disengage their attention from an incorrectly cued visual target stimulus and reorient it toward a somatic target more rapidly when the somatic target is painful than when it is nonpainful. Furthermore, electrophysiological data suggest that this effect is mediated by a stimulus-driven process, in which somatic threat detectors located in the dorsal posterior insula activate the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex areas involved in reorienting attention toward the painful target. In these previous studies, the painful and nonpainful somatic targets were given in separate experiments involving different participants. Here, the nonpainful and painful somatic targets were presented in random order within the same block of trials. Unlike in the previous studies, both the nonpainful and painful somatic targets activated the somatic threat detectors, and the times taken to disengage and reorient attention were the same for both. These electrophysiological and behavioral data suggest that somatic threat detectors can become sensitized to nonpainful somatic stimuli that are presented in a context that includes painful stimuli.

Keywords Pain · Attention ·. Orienting · Threat

Introduction

Pain often signals damage to the body (Millan, 1999; Price, Greenspan, & Dubner, 2003; Wall, 1994), and under some circumstances can be perceived as threatening and elicit a strong emotional response (Auvray, Myin, & Spence, 2010; Eccleston & Crombez, 1999; Vlaeyen & Linton, 2000). These properties are undoubtedly related to pain's well-known ability to disengage attention from other ongoing cognitive processes and reorient it toward the damage (Eccleston & Crombez, 1999; Norman & Shallice, 1986). Yet, despite pain's ecological significance, the neural mechanisms underlying this important cognitive process are poorly understood (Legrain, Iannetti, Plaghki, & Mouraux, 2011; Van Damme, Legrain, Vogt, & Crombez, 2010).

Evidence for a stimulus-driven somatic threat detection and reorienting process

We have investigated the neural mechanism underlying pain's ability to disengage and reorient attention using a cross-modal endogenous-cuing paradigm (Dowman, 2007a, b; Dowman & ben-Avraham, 2008). In these studies, a visual task and a somatosensory task were given in random order with equal probabilities in the same block of trials. Two target stimuli were given in each task. For the visual task, participants indicated whether a red or a yellow lightemitting diode (LED) was lit. The target stimuli for the somatosensory task were two perceptually distinct levels of sural nerve electrical stimulation. In one study, both of the sural nerve targets were painful (Dowman, 2007a), and in the other, both were nonpainful (Dowman, 2007b). In the study involving painful sural nerve stimuli, the participants rated the intensity of the target. In the study involving nonpainful sural nerve stimuli, the participants performed an intensity discrimination task, in which they indicated whether the low- or the high-intensity stimulus was presented.

A symbolic cue given at the beginning of each trial signaled which task was forthcoming. The interval between the cue offset and target onset was 1.5 s to ensure that any involuntary (exogenous) attention effects elicited by the cue had expired and that the participant had ample time to voluntarily direct attention to the cued target (see Van Damme, Crombez, Eccleston, & Goubert, 2004). …

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