Amygdala and anterior insula control the passage from nociception to pain


Activation of the spinothalamic system does not always result in a subjective pain perception. While the cerebral network processing nociception is relatively well known, the one underlying its transition to conscious pain remains poorly described. We used intracranial electroencephalography in epileptic patients to investigate whether the amplitudes and functional connectivity of posterior and anterior insulae (PI and AI) and amygdala differ according to the subjective reports to laser stimuli delivered at a constant intensity set at nociceptive threshold. Despite the constant intensity of stimuli, all patients reported variable subjective perceptions from one stimulus to the other. Responses in the sensory PI remained stable throughout the experiment, hence reflecting accurately the stability of the stimulus. In contrast, both AI and amygdala responses showed significant enhancements associated with painful relative to nonpainful reports, in a time window corresponding to the conscious integration of the stimulus. Functional connectivity in the gamma band between these two regions increased significantly, both before and after stimuli perceived as painful. While the PI appears to transmit faithfully the actual stimulus intensity received via the spinothalamic tract, the AI and the amygdala appear to play a major role in the transformation of nociceptive signals into a painful perception.