Control over brain activation and pain learned by using real-time functional MRI.
The aim of this study was the analysis of the effect of a learned increase in the dissociation between the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and the left posterior insula (pInsL) on pain intensity and unpleasantness and the contribution of each region to the effect, exploring the possibility to influence the perception of pain with neurofeedback methods. We trained ten healthy subjects to increase the difference in the blood oxygenation level-dependent response between the rACC and pInsL to painful electric stimuli. Subjects learned to increase the dissociation with either the rACC (state 1) or the pInsL (state 2) being higher. For feedback we subtracted the signal of one region from the other and provided feedback in four conditions with six trials each yielding two different states: [rACC-pInsL increase (state 1), rACC-pInsL decrease (state 2), pInsL-rACC increase (state 2), pInsL-rACC decrease (state 1)]. Significant changes in the dissociation from trial one to six were seen in all conditions. There were significant changes from trial one to six in the pInsL in three of the four conditions, the rACC showed no significant change. Pain intensity or unpleasantness ratings were unrelated to the dissociation between the regions and the activation in each region. Learning success in the conditions did not significantly correlate and there was no significant correlation between the two respective conditions of one state, i.e., learning to achieve a specific state is not a stable ability. The pInsL seems to be the driving force behind changes in the learned dissociation between the regions. Despite successful differential modulation of activation in areas responsive to the painful stimulus, no corresponding changes in the perception of pain intensity or unpleasantness emerged. Learning to induce different states of dissociation between the areas is not a stable ability since success did not correlate overall or between two conditions of the the same state.