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The degree to which perceived controllability alters the way a stressor is experienced varies greatly among individuals. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the neural activation associated with individual differences in the impact of perceived controllability on self-reported pain perception. Subjects with greater activation in response to uncontrollable (UC) rather than controllable (C) pain in the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pACC), periaqueductal gray (PAG), and posterior insula/SII reported higher levels of pain during the UC versus C conditions. Conversely, subjects with greater activation in the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) in anticipation of pain in the UC versus C conditions reported less pain in response to UC versus C pain. Activation in the VLPFC was significantly correlated with the acceptance and denial subscales of the COPE inventory [Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. Assessing coping strategies: A theoretically based approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 267-283, 1989], supporting the interpretation that this anticipatory activation was associated with an attempt to cope with the emotional impact of uncontrollable pain. A regression model containing the two prefrontal clusters (VLPFC and pACC) predicted 64% of the variance in pain rating difference, with activation in the two additional regions (PAG and insula/SII) predicting almost no additional variance. In addition to supporting the conclusion that the impact of perceived controllability on pain perception varies highly between individuals, these findings suggest that these effects are primarily top-down, driven by processes in regions of the prefrontal cortex previously associated with cognitive modulation of pain and emotion regulation.
The response to painful stimulation depends not only on peripheral nociceptive input but also on the cognitive and affective context in which pain occurs. One contextual variable that affects the neural and behavioral response to nociceptive stimulation is the degree to which pain is perceived to be controllable. Previous studies indicate that perceived controllability affects pain tolerance, learning and motivation, and the ability to cope with intractable pain, suggesting that it has profound effects on neural pain processing. To date, however, no neuroimaging studies have assessed these effects. We manipulated the subjects' belief that they had control over a nociceptive stimulus, while the stimulus itself was held constant. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that pain that was perceived to be controllable resulted in attenuated activation in the three neural areas most consistently linked with pain processing: the anterior cingulate, insular, and secondary somatosensory cortices. This suggests that activation at these sites is modulated by cognitive variables, such as perceived controllability, and that pain imaging studies may therefore overestimate the degree to which these responses are stimulus driven and generalizable across cognitive contexts.
Facial expressions of pain are an important part of the pain response, signaling distress to others and eliciting social support. To evaluate how voluntary modulation of this response contributes to the pain experience, 29 subjects were exposed to thermal stimulation while making standardized pain, control, or relaxed faces. Dependent measures were self-reported negative effect (valence and arousal) as well as the intensity of nociceptive stimulation required to reach a given subjective level of pain. No direct social feedback was given by the experimenter. Although the amount of nociceptive stimulation did not differ across face conditions, subjects reported more negative effects in response to painful stimulation while holding the pain face. Subsequent analyses suggested the effects were not due to preexisting differences in the difficulty or unpleasantness of making the pain face. These results suggest that voluntary pain expressions have no positively reinforcing (pain attenuating) qualities, at least in the absence of external contingencies such as social reinforcement, and that such expressions may indeed be associated with higher levels of negative affect in response to similar nociceptive input. PERSPECTIVE: This study demonstrates that making a standardized pain face increases negative affect in response to nociceptive stimulation, even in the absence of social feedback. This suggests that exaggerated facial displays of pain, although often socially reinforced, may also have unintended aversive consequences.