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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.

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Researchers involved



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

Cerebral Cortex

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.



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

Journal of Neurophysiology

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



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

PLoS Biology

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



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

Human Brain Mapping

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




Evoked potentials in relation to pain perception

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

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

Apkarian AV (Ed). IASP Press.



The pain matrix: myths and (unpleasant) truths

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

Iannetti GD, Mouraux A.

Apkarian AV (Ed). IASP Press.


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

Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

Colon E, Legrain V, Mouraux A.



Unmasking the obligatory components of nociceptive event-related brain potentials

Journal of Neurophysiology

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



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

Nature Communications

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



Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain

TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences

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

17(8): 371-8

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