The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
Nov 06, 2019
Mesocorticolimbic pathways encode cue-based expectancy effects on pain.
Expectation interacting with nociceptive input can shape the perception of pain. It has been suggested that reward-related expectations are associated with the activation of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which projects to the striatum (e.g., nucleus accumbens [NAc]) and prefrontal cortex (e.g., rostral anterior cingulate cortex [rACC]). However, the role of these projection pathways in encoding expectancy effects on pain remains unclear. In this study, we leveraged a visual cue conditioning paradigm with a long pain anticipation period and collected magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from 30 healthy human subjects (14 females). At the within-subject level, whole brain functional connectivity (FC) analyses showed that the mesocortical pathway (VTA-rACC FC) and the mesolimbic pathway (VTA-NAc FC) were enhanced with positive expectation but inhibited with negative expectation during pain anticipation period. Mediation analyses revealed that cue-based expectancy effects on pain were mainly mediated by the VTA-NAc FC, and structural equation modeling showed that VTA-based FC influenced pain perception by modulating pain-evoked brain responses. At the between-subject level, multivariate pattern analyses demonstrated that gray matter volumes in the VTA, NAc, and rACC were able to predict the magnitudes of conditioned pain responses associated with positive and/or negative expectations across subjects. Our results therefore advance the current understanding of how the reward system is linked to the interaction between expectation and pain. Furthermore, they provide precise functional and structural information on mesocorticolimibic pathways that encode within-subject and between-subject variability of expectancy effects on pain.Significance statementStudies have suggested that reward-related expectation is associated with the activation of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which projects to the striatum and prefrontal cortex. However, the role of these projection pathways in encoding expectancy effects on pain remains unclear. Using multi-modality MRI and a visual cue conditioning paradigm, we found that the functional connectivity and gray matter volumes in key regions (the VTA, nucleus accumbens, and rostral anterior cingulate cortex) within the mesocorticolimbic pathways encoded expectancy effects on pain. Our results advance the current understanding of how the reward system is linked to the interaction between expectation and pain, and provide precise functional and structural information on mesocorticolimbic pathways that encode expectancy effects on pain.