Neural and Psychological Mechanisms of Pain Perception

  • End date
    Jun 15, 2023
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
Updated on 21 October 2022
Accepts healthy volunteers


  • Painful stimuli cause changes in a network of brain regions called the "Pain Matrix." But most of these regions respond to many other stimuli, not just pain. Researchers want to understand how different factors influence pain. They want to test what happens when people expect different levels of pain and receive treatments that can modify pain. They want to see if these factors influence decisions about pain and how the body responds to it. They also want to compare pain with responses like taste and vision.
  • To better understand how pain and emotions are processed and influenced by psychological factors.
  • Healthy volunteers ages 18-50.
  • This study requires 1 to 2 clinic visits that last 1 to 3 hours.
  • Participants will be screened with medical history and physical exam.
  • Some participants will have one or more magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brain. For MRI, participants will lie on a table that slides in and out of a cylinder. The scanner makes loud knocking noises. They will get earplugs.
  • Participants heart activity will be recorded with electrocardiogram. Their pulse, sweating, and breathing will be monitored.
  • Some participants will take a taste test. Others may perform simple tasks. Others may receive pain in their arm, leg, or hand. The pain will come from heat or electric shocks. Others may judge pain using a topical pain-relieving cream. Some of these tests may be given during MRI.
  • Participants will fill out questionnaires.
  • The study will last 3 years.



Pain is one of the most important signals for an organism s survival. The pathways that transfer noxious input from the periphery to the central nervous system are highly conserved across human and animal models. In humans, the ultimate experience of pain is also highly influenced by psychological factors. For example, the placebo effect leads to robust pain relief and can influence responses to noxious stimuli in the human brain. However, the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms by which psychological factors influence pain remain largely unknown.

Pain can be modulated by explicit beliefs about treatments, prior experience and learning, interpersonal processes that support the patient-provider relationship, and contextual factors related to the treatment environment. In the proposed series of experiments, we will systematically investigate the neural and psychological mechanisms that mediate the effects of these factors on acute pain. We will focus on expectations, attention, emotion, conditioning/associative learning, and social factors. These experiments will principally use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and psychophysiological measurements, as well as behavioral assays and self-reports. We will examine the effects of different types of pain-related expectations on decisions about pain as well as responses in the brain and periphery. We will also compare acute pain with other hedonic and perceptual processes. This will allow us to distinguish processes that are unique to pain perception from those that are not specific to pain, such as processes involved in perception and decision-making across domains.

Together, the proposed series of experiments aim to elucidate the psychological, neurobiological, and physiological mechanisms that modulate pain. This, in turn, can identify targets for pain treatment and inform mechanistic studies of altered pain processing in clinical populations.

Study Population

We plan to recruit 500 healthy volunteers between age 18 and 50.


The aim of the proposed series of experiments is to understand how expectations, attention, and emotion influence acute pain. We will manipulate expectations about noxious stimuli using associative learning and verbal instructions, in both within-subjects and between-groups designs. We will measure decisions about pain experience (self- report) as well as neural and physiological responses to noxious stimuli that cause pain. We will combine computational modeling with advanced neuroimaging analyses to isolate the neural and psychological mechanisms that mediate the effects of expectations, attention, and emotion on subjective pain. To determine the specificity of these mechanisms, we will compare acute pain modalities (e.g., thermal pain versus shock- induced pain), and we will contrast pain with other hedonic and perceptual domains (e.g., taste).

Outcome measures

Dependent variables for all experiments will include decisions about pain and/or other percepts (e.g., sweetness of a taste) measured with visual analogue scales, reaction time, physiological responses (e.g., skin conductance, pupil dilation), and/or BOLD activation in regions of interest. We are specifically interested in processes within the network of regions known to be involved in pain processing (pain-processing network, PPN), as well as responses in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), ventral striatum (VS), and amygdala. We hypothesize that nociceptive stimuli and pain ratings will be associated with unique patterns of activation within the PPN, whereas responses in regions associated with value, executive function, and decision-making will be common across outcomes.

Condition Pain, Normal Physiology, Healthy Volunteers
Treatment ATTENTION, Instructions, Instructions, Thermal Pain, Placebo instructions, Liquid tastants
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT02446262
SponsorNational Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)
Last Modified on21 October 2022


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

Between 18 and 50 years old
Fluent in English
Able to provide written informed consent

Exclusion Criteria

Unable to comply with study procedures or follow-up visits
Has a major medical condition or medical history that in a clinician's assessment could affect heat sensitivity, pain thresholds, or ability to comply with study procedures. This may include cardiovascular, autonomic, neurological or psychiatric conditions (including stroke and blindness or deafness, a history of brain damage, substance or alcohol dependence or abuse or psychosis) or a chronic systemic disease (e.g., diabetes)
Has a medical condition that in a clinician's assessment might affect somatosensation (e.g., Raynaud s disease, peripheral neuropathy, or circulatory disorder)
Has a current chronic pain condition or has had chronic pain in the past (painful condition lasting more than six months)
Has a dermatological condition such as scars or burns, or has had a tattoo in the testing region within the previous 4 weeks that might influence cutaneous sensibility
Regular use of prescription medication that has a significant effect on pain or heat perception. Excluded medications include central-acting agents such as opiates (morphine, tramadol), antidepressants (amitriptyline, duloxetine, milnacipran), anticonvulsants (gabapentin, pregabalin), anxiolytics (barbituates, benzodiazepines), hypnotics (zolpidem, sodium oxybate), antipsychotics (valproate, lithium, olanzapine), antimigraine agents (sumatriptan, ergotamine), and muscle relaxants (cyclobenzaprine, carisoprodol). Use of analgesic medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, salicylates, and acetaminophen, taken on an "as needed" basis is acceptable as long as the last dose taken was within 5 half-lives of testing
NCCIH and NIMH employees
Is pregnant
Individuals with conditions that could pose a risk relating to the safety of the fMRI procedure or pain stimulation will be excluded from the MRI portion of the protocol, but may participate in the non-fMRI sessions (with the exception of pregnant women). Such conditions include
Those with ferromagnetic metal in the cranial cavity or eye, e.g.. aneurysm clip, implanted neural stimulator, cochlear implant, ocular foreign body
Those with an abnormality on a structural MRI
Those with an implanted cardiac pacemaker or auto-defibrillator
Those with an insulin pump
Those with an irremovable body piercing
Pregnant women (based on urine test completed within 24 hours prior to scan)
Individuals who are left-handed (based on self-report or score on handedness
questionnaire) will be excluded from fMRI substudies
EXCLUSION CRITERIA (placebo analgesia sub-studies)
Participation in an NIH study of analgesia, as gleaned from CRIS
Clear my responses

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