Questioning the functional significance of the pain matrix

Neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies have shown that transient nociceptive stimuli elicit responses in an extensive cortical network including somatosensory, insular and cingulate areas, as well as frontal and parietal areas. A long-standing view in the field of pain research has been that this network, often referred to as the “pain matrix”, represents the neural activity through which pain emerges as a percept. Recently, we have performed a number of studies challenging this interpretation. First, we conducted a number of experiments showing that pain intensity can be entirely dissociated from the magnitude of the responses in the so-called “pain matrix”, and that the magnitude of the elicited brain responses are strongly influenced by the context within which the stimulus appears, in particular, stimulus novelty. Second, using EEG and fMRI, we showed that non-nociceptive stimuli as well as stimuli not perceived as painful can elicit cortical responses having a spatial distribution that is indistinguishable from that of the “pain matrix”. For these different reasons, we proposed an alternative view of the functional significance of the “pain matrix”, in which it would reflect a system involved in detecting, orientation attention towards, and reacting to the occurrence of salient and/or behaviorally-relevant sensory events. Furthermore, we postulate that this cortical network might represent a basic mechanism through which significant events for the body’s integrity are detected, regardless of the sensory channel through which these events are conveyed.

Researchers involved


Cerebral Cortex

Spatial Patterns of Brain Activity Preferentially Reflecting Transient Pain and Stimulus Intensity


Liang M, Su Q, Mouraux A, Iannetti GD.



Brain regions preferentially responding to transient and iso-intense painful or tactile stimuli


Su Q, Qin W, Yang QQ, Yu CS, Qian TY, Mouraux A, Iannetti GD, Liang M.



The search for pain biomarkers in the human brain


Mouraux A, Iannetti GD.


Journal of Neurophysiology

The human primary somatosensory cortex is differentially involved in vibrotaction and nociception


Lenoir C, Huang G, Vandermeeren Y, Hatem SM, Mouraux A.


PLoS Biology

Nociceptive local field potentials recorded from the human insula are not specific for nociception


Liberati G, Klocker A, Safronova MM, Ferrao Santos S, Ribeiro Vaz JG, Raftopoulos C, Mouraux A.


Human Brain Mapping

The primary somatosensory cortex and the insula contribute differently to the processing of transient and sustained nociceptive and non-nociceptive somatosensory inputs


Hu L, Zhang L, Chen R, Yu H, Li H, Mouraux A.


The brain adapting with pain: Contribution of neuroimaging technology to pain mechanisms

Evoked potentials in relation to pain perception


Mouraux A, Iannetti GD, Baumgartner U, Treede RD.

Apkarian AV (Ed). IASP Press.

The brain adapting with pain: Contribution of neuroimaging technology to pain mechanisms

The pain matrix: myths and (unpleasant) truths


Iannetti GD, Mouraux A.

Apkarian AV (Ed). IASP Press.

Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

EEG frequency-tagging to dissociate the cortical responses to nociceptive and non-nociceptive stimuli


Colon E, Legrain V, Mouraux A.


Journal of Neurophysiology

Unmasking the obligatory components of nociceptive event-related brain potentials


Mouraux A, De Paepe AL, Marot E, Plaghki L, Iannetti GD, Legrain V.


Nature Communications

Primary Sensory Cortices Contain Distinguishable Spatial Patterns of Activity for Each Sense


Liang M, Mouraux A, Hu L, Iannetti GD.


TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences

Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain


Iannetti GD, Salomons TV, Moayedi M, Mouraux A, Davis KD.

17(8): 371-8

Institute of Neuroscience (IONS) - Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)