Neural underpinnings of preferential pain learning and the modulatory role of fear
Forkmann K., Wiech K., Schmidt K., Schmid-Köhler J., Bingel U.
Abstract Due to its unique biological relevance, pain-related learning might differ from learning from other aversive experiences. This functional magnetic resonance imaging study compared neural mechanisms underlying the acquisition and extinction of different threats in healthy humans. We investigated whether cue-pain associations are acquired faster and extinguished slower than cue associations with an equally unpleasant tone. Additionally, we studied the modulatory role of stimulus-related fear. Therefore, we used a differential conditioning paradigm, in which somatic heat pain stimuli and unpleasantness-matched auditory stimuli served as US. Our results show stronger acquisition learning for pain- than tone-predicting cues, which was augmented in participants with relatively higher levels of fear of pain. These behavioral findings were paralleled by activation of brain regions implicated in threat processing (insula, amygdala) and personal significance (ventromedial prefrontal cortex). By contrast, extinction learning seemed to be less dependent on the threat value of the US, both on the behavioral and neural levels. Amygdala activity, however, scaled with pain-related fear during extinction learning. Our findings on faster and stronger (i.e. “preferential”) pain learning and the role of fear of pain are consistent with the biological relevance of pain and may be relevant to the development or maintenance of chronic pain.