Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The amygdala has been implicated in fundamental functions for the survival of the organism, such as fear and pain. In accord with this, several studies have shown increased amygdala activity during fear conditioning and the processing of fear-relevant material in human subjects. In contrast, functional neuroimaging studies of pain have shown a decreased amygdala activity. It has previously been proposed that the observed deactivations of the amygdala in these studies indicate a cognitive strategy to adapt to a distressful but in the experimental setting unavoidable painful event. In this positron emission tomography study, we show that a simple contextual manipulation, immediately preceding a painful stimulation, that increases the anticipated duration of the painful event leads to a decrease in amygdala activity and modulates the autonomic response during the noxious stimulation. On a behavioral level, 7 of the 10 subjects reported that they used coping strategies more intensely in this context. We suggest that the altered activity in the amygdala may be part of a mechanism to attenuate pain-related stress responses in a context that is perceived as being more aversive. The study also showed an increased activity in the rostral part of anterior cingulate cortex in the same context in which the amygdala activity decreased, further supporting the idea that this part of the cingulate cortex is involved in the modulation of emotional and pain networks.