Mind Wandering Engages Pain-Relieving Pathways in the Brain

Mind Wandering Engages Pain-Relieving Pathways in the Brain

Everyone has experienced instances of their mind wandering away from tasks at hand. Recent evidence from UTCSP trainee Aaron Kucyi, in Dr. Karen Davis’ lab at Toronto Western Hospital, demonstrates that our minds wander even during pain, and that this is associated with increased engagement of pain-relieving pathways.

In this study, the authors combined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and diffusion MRI techniques to understand how regions of the brain involved with attention interact with descending pain systems, previously shown to reduce pain. Human participants were given painful stimuli and asked whether they were currently concentrating on the pain, or away from it. During these trials, fMRI scans were completed to determine the most active areas of the brain. The authors found that concentration on pain coincided with brain activation in pain-related related areas of the brain (insula, thalamus, somatosensory cortex), and deactivation in the “default mode network”, a set of brain areas associated with attention away from the external environment. Importantly, mind wandering was associated with enhanced communication between the default mode network and the pain analgesia system.

In participants predisposed to mind wandering away from pain, there were stronger structural connections in the pain analgesia pathway, suggesting that some people have a greater ability to tune out pain through this pathway. This suggests that differences between people’s perception of pain may be due to differences in brain connectivity leading to altered descending modulation of incoming pain information. This pathway also represents a possible method through which pain can be cognitively modulated, and may represent a pathway for individual differences in pain recovery.

 

Reference: Kucyi ASalomons TVDavis KD. Mind wandering away from pain dynamically engages antinociceptive and default mode brain networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 110(46):18692-7. Article can be accessed at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24167282