Chronic pain and the emotional brain: specific brain activity associated with spontaneous fluctuations of intensity of chronic back pain.
Living with unrelenting pain (chronic pain) is maladaptive and is thought to be associated with physiological and psychological modifications, yet there is a lack of knowledge regarding brain elements involved in such conditions. Here, we identify brain regions involved in spontaneous pain of chronic back pain (CBP) in two separate groups of patients (n = 13 and n = 11), and contrast brain activity between spontaneous pain and thermal pain (CBP and healthy subjects, n = 11 each). Continuous ratings of fluctuations of spontaneous pain during functional magnetic resonance imaging were separated into two components: high sustained pain and increasing pain. Sustained high pain of CBP resulted in increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC; including rostral anterior cingulate). This mPFC activity was strongly related to intensity of CBP, and the region is known to be involved in negative emotions, response conflict, and detection of unfavorable outcomes, especially in relation to the self. In contrast, the increasing phase of CBP transiently activated brain regions commonly observed for acute pain, best exemplified by the insula, which tightly reflected duration of CBP. When spontaneous pain of CBP was contrasted to thermal stimulation, we observe a double-dissociation between mPFC and insula with the former correlating only to intensity of spontaneous pain and the latter correlating only to pain intensity for thermal stimulation. These findings suggest that subjective spontaneous pain of CBP involves specific spatiotemporal neuronal mechanisms, distinct from those observed for acute experimental pain, implicating a salient role for emotional brain concerning the self.