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Volume 3, Pages 1065-1080
Review Article

Visceral Afferent Pathways and Functional Brain Imaging

Department of Anesthesiology, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, USA

Copyright © 2003 Stuart W.G.�Derbyshire.


The application of functional imaging to study painful sensations has generated considerable interest regarding insight into brain dysfunction that may be responsible for functional pain such as that suffered in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This review provides a brief introduction to the development of brain science as it relates to pain processing and a snapshot of recent functional imaging results with somatic and visceral pain. Particular emphasis is placed on current hypotheses regarding dysfunction of the brain-gut axis in IBS patients. There are clear and interpretable differences in brain activation following somatic as compared with visceral noxious sensation. Noxious visceral distension, particularly of the lower gastrointestinal tract, activates regions associated with unpleasant affect and autonomic responses. Noxious somatic sensation, in contrast, activates regions associated with cognition and skeletomotor responses. Differences between IBS patients and control subjects, however, were far less clear and interpretable. While this is in part due to the newness of this field, it also reflects weaknesses inherent within the current understanding of IBS. Future use of functional imaging to examine IBS and other functional disorders will be more likely to succeed by describing clear theoretical and clinical endpoints.