Computational and neural mechanisms of statistical pain learning.
Mancini F., Zhang S., Seymour B.
Pain invariably changes over time. These fluctuations contain statistical regularities which, in theory, could be learned by the brain to generate expectations and control responses. We demonstrate that humans learn to extract these regularities and explicitly predict the likelihood of forthcoming pain intensities in a manner consistent with optimal Bayesian inference with dynamic update of beliefs. Healthy participants received probabilistic, volatile sequences of low and high-intensity electrical stimuli to the hand during brain fMRI. The inferred frequency of pain correlated with activity in sensorimotor cortical regions and dorsal striatum, whereas the uncertainty of these inferences was encoded in the right superior parietal cortex. Unexpected changes in stimulus frequencies drove the update of internal models by engaging premotor, prefrontal and posterior parietal regions. This study extends our understanding of sensory processing of pain to include the generation of Bayesian internal models of the temporal statistics of pain.