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Keywords:

  • attention;
  • emotion;
  • evoked potentials;
  • pain;
  • vision

Abstract

It is acknowledged that the emotional state created by visual inputs can modulate the way we feel pain; however, little is known about how acute pain influences the emotional assessment of what we see. In this study healthy subjects scored affective images while receiving painful or innocuous electrical shocks. Painful stimuli did not make unpleasant images more unpleasant, but rendered pleasant pictures significantly less pleasant. Brain responses to visual inputs (64-channels electroencephalogram) mirrored behavioural results, showing pain-induced effects in the orbitofrontal cortex, the subgenual portion of the cingulate gyrus, the anterior prefrontal and the temporal cortices, exclusively during presentation of pleasant images. In addition to this specific effect on pleasant pictures, pain also produced non-specific effects upon all categories of images, engaging cerebral areas associated with attention, alertness and motor preparation (middle-cingulate, supplemental motor, prefrontal cortex). Thus, pain appears to have a dual influence on visual processing: a non-specific effect related to orienting phenomena; and a more specific action exerted on supra-modal limbic areas involved in the production of affective states. The latter correlated with changes in the subjective appraisal of visual stimuli, and may underlie not only the change in their subjective assessment but also reactive processes aimed at coping with unpleasant contexts.