Attentional Modulation of Somatosensory Processing During the Anticipation of Movements Accompanying Pain: An Event-Related Potential Study

Published:November 14, 2017DOI:


      • Threat of pain automatically biases attention to the pain-related location.
      • Movements accompanying pain steer attention toward somatosensory input.
      • Enhanced N120 somatosensory evoked potential may reflect attentional bias to pain.
      • Location-unspecific P200 somatosensory evoked potential as a reflection of arousal.


      Attending to pain-relevant information is crucial to protect us from physical harm. Behavioral studies have already suggested that during anticipation of pain somatosensory input at the body location under threat is prioritized. However, research using daily life cues for pain, especially movements, is lacking. Furthermore, to our knowledge, no studies have investigated cortical processing associated with somatosensory processing during threatened movements. The current study aims to investigate whether movements accompanying pain automatically steer attention toward somatosensory input at the threatened location, affecting somatosensory evoked potentials (SEPs). Healthy volunteers were cued to perform movements with the left or the right hand, and one of these movements could be accompanied by pain on the moving hand. During movement anticipation, a task-irrelevant tactile stimulus was presented to the threatened or pain-free hand to evoke SEPs. During anticipation of movements accompanying pain, the N120 component was increased for tactile stimuli at the threatened relative to the hand without pain. Moreover, the P200 SEP was enhanced during anticipation of movements accompanying pain relative to movements without pain, irrespective of which hand was stimulated. These findings show that the anticipation of pain-accompanying movements may affect the processing of somatosensory input, and that this is likely to be driven by attentional processes.


      This study shows that the anticipation of pain-related movements automatically biases attention toward stimuli at a pain-related location, measured according to SEPs. The present study provides important new insights in the interplay between pain and attention, and its consequences at the cortical level.

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