The Human Amygdala and Pain: Evidence from Neuroimaging

The amygdala, a small deep brain structure involved in behavioral processing through interactions with other brain regions, has garnered increased attention in recent years in relation to pain processing. As pain is a multidimensional experience that encompasses physical sensation, affect, and cognition, the amygdala is well suited to play a part in this process. Multiple neuroimaging studies of pain in humans have reported activation in the amygdala. Here we summarize these studies by performing a coordinate-based meta-analysis within experimentally induced and clinical pain studies using an activation likelihood estimate analysis. The results are presented in relation to locations of peak activation within and outside of amygdala subregions. The majority of studies identified coordinates consistent with human amygdala cytoarchitecture indicating reproducibility in neuroanatomical labeling across labs, analysis methods, and imaging modalities. Differences were noted between healthy and clinical pain studies: in clinical pain studies, peak activation was located in the laterobasal region, suggestive of the cognitive-affective overlay present among individuals suffering from chronic pain; while the less understood superficial region of the amygdala was prominent among experimental pain studies. Taken together, these findings suggest several important directions for further research exploring the amygdala’s role in pain processing.