Operculoinsular cortex encodes pain intensity at the earliest stages of cortical processing as indicated by amplitude of laser-evoked potentials in humans.
Iannetti GD., Zambreanu L., Cruccu G., Tracey I.
Converging evidence from different functional imaging studies indicates that the intensity of activation of different nociceptive areas (including the operculoinsular cortex, the primary somatosensory cortex, and the anterior cingulate gyrus) correlates with perceived pain intensity in the human brain. Brief radiant laser pulses excite selectively Adelta and C nociceptors in the superficial skin layers, provide a purely nociceptive input, and evoke brain potentials (laser-evoked potentials, LEPs) that are commonly used to assess nociceptive pathways in physiological and clinical studies. Adelta-related LEPs are constituted of different components. The earliest is a lateralised, small negative component (N1) which could be generated by the operculoinsular cortex. The major negative component (N2) seems to be mainly the result of activation in the bilateral operculoinsular cortices and contralateral primary somatosensory cortex, and it is followed by a positive component (P2) probably generated by the cingulate gyrus. Currently, early and late LEP components are considered to be differentially sensitive to the subjective variability of pain perception: the late N2-P2 complex strongly correlates with perceived pain, whereas the early N1 component is thought to be a pre-perceptual sensory response. To obtain physiological information on the roles of the pain-related brain areas in healthy humans, we examined the relationship between perceived pain intensity and latency and amplitude of the early (N1) and late (N2, P2) LEP components. We found that the amplitude of the N1 component correlated significantly with the subjective pain ratings, both within and between subjects. Furthermore, we showed that the N2 and P2 late LEP components are differentially sensitive to the perceived sensation, and demonstrated that the N2 component mainly explains the previously described correlation between perceived pain and the amplitude of the N2-P2 vertex complex of LEPs. Our findings confirm the notion that pain intensity processing is distributed over several brain areas, and suggest that the intensity coding of a noxious stimulus occurs already at the earliest stage of perception processing, in the operculoinsular region and, possibly, the primary somatosensory area.