Prior exposure to extreme pain alters neural response to pain in others

Moranne Eidelman-Rothman, Abraham Goldstein, Omri Weisman, Inna Schneiderman, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, Jean Decety, Ruth Feldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the extant literature examining the brain mechanisms implicated in pain perception, researchers have theorized that the overlapping responses to pain in the self and in others mark the human capacity for empathy. Here we investigated how prior exposure to extreme pain affects pain perception, by assessing the dynamics of pain processing in veterans who were previously exposed to severe injury. Forty-three participants (28 pain-exposed and 15 controls) underwent whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) while viewing photographs of limbs in painful and nonpainful (neutral) conditions. Among controls, an early (0–220 ms) “pain effect” in the posterior cingulate and sensorimotor cortices, and a later (760–900 ms) “pain effect” in the posterior cingulate cortex, superior temporal gyrus/insula, and fusiform gyrus were found, indicated by enhanced alpha suppression to the pain versus nonpain conditions. Importantly, pain-exposed participants exhibited an atypical pain response in the posterior cingulate cortex, indicated by a normative response to pain, but no pain-to-no-pain differentiation. This may suggest that individuals exposed to extreme pain may perceive neutral stimuli as potentially threatening. Our findings demonstrate alterations in pain perception following extreme pain exposure, chart the sequence from automatic to evaluative pain processing, and emphasize the importance of considering past experiences in studying the neural response to others’ states.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)662-671
Number of pages10
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016


  • Alpha suppression
  • MEG
  • Pain perception
  • Posterior cingulate cortex

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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