What causes pain? Although pain normally originates from the activation of specialized peripheral nerve cells, there are many conditions in which pain is dissociated from sensory signals coming from the body. That is because pain – the subjective experience – is ultimately caused by the brain. It is the brain that transforms ascending nociceptive signals into that subjective experience we call pain – sometimes it may even produce the experience from scratch, such as in phantom limb pain or painful epileptic auras. The goal of our research is therefore to understand how the brain functions as the organ of pain: what, in the brain, causes pain?
We are tackling this difficult question from a number of different angles, and using a variety of brain imaging (MRI, EGG, MEG) and psychological/psychophysiological methods (pain ratings, response times, decision-making, nociceptive flexion reflexes, skin conductance responses, facial EMG, heart rate, cortisol, etc.). One line of research focuses on motivational aspects of pain (competition with monetary rewards, distraction, etc.). Another line of research is interested in understanding the central nervous system mediators of pain-relieving interventions, such as music, placebo, and physical exercise training. Finally, in one last line of research, we are trying to identify brain markers of pain chronicity in patients suffering from chronic low back pain (CLBP), and other types of chronic pain.