A role for the brainstem in central sensitisation in humans. Evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging

L. Zambreanu, R. G. Wise, J. C.W. Brooks, G. D. Iannetti, I. Tracey

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Animal studies have established a role for the brainstem reticular formation, in particular the rostral ventromedial medulla (RVM), in the development and maintenance of central sensitisation and its clinical manifestation, secondary hyperalgesia. Similar evidence in humans is lacking, as neuroimaging studies have mainly focused on cortical changes. To fully characterise the supraspinal contributions to central sensitisation in humans, we used whole-brain functional magnetic resonance imaging at 3 T, to record brain responses to punctate mechanical stimulation in an area of secondary hyperalgesia. We used the heat/capsaicin sensitisation model to induce secondary hyperalgesia on the right lower leg in 12 healthy volunteers. A paired t-test was used to compare activation maps obtained during punctate stimulation of the secondary hyperalgesia area and those recorded during control punctate stimulation (same body site, untreated skin, separate session). The following areas showed significantly increased activation (Z>2.3, corrected P<0.01) during hyperalgesia: contralateral brainstem, cerebellum, bilateral thalamus, contralateral primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, bilateral posterior insula, anterior and posterior cingulate cortices, right middle frontal gyrus and right parietal association cortex. Brainstem activation was localised to two distinct areas of the midbrain reticular formation, in regions consistent with the location of nucleus cuneiformis (NCF) and rostral superior colliculi/periaqueductal gray (SC/PAG). The PAG and the NCF are the major sources of input to the RVM, and therefore in an ideal position to modulate its output. These results suggest that structures in the mesencephalic reticular formation, possibly the NCF and PAG, are involved in central sensitisation in humans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-407
Number of pages11
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2005


  • Brainstem
  • Capsaicin
  • Central sensitisation
  • fMRI
  • Hyperalgesia

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