Brain mechanisms supporting violated expectations of pain

Fadel Zeidan, Oleg V. Lobanov, Robert A. Kraft, Robert C. Coghill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The subjective experience of pain is influenced by interactions between experiences, future predictions, and incoming afferent information. Expectations of high pain can exacerbate pain, whereas expectations of low pain during a consistently noxious stimulus can produce significant reductions in pain. However, the brain mechanisms associated with processing mismatches between expected and experienced pain are poorly understood, but are important for imparting salience to a sensory event to override erroneous top-down expectancy-mediated information. This investigation examined pain-related brain activation when expectations of pain were abruptly violated. After conditioning participants to cues predicting low or high pain, 10 incorrectly cued stimuli were administered across 56 stimulus trials to determine whether expectations would be less influential on pain when there is a high discordance between prestimulus cues and corresponding thermal stimulation. Incorrectly cued stimuli produced pain ratings and pain-related brain activation consistent with placebo analgesia, nocebo hyperalgesia, and violated expectations. Violated expectations of pain were associated with activation in distinct regions of the inferior parietal lobe, including the supramarginal and angular gyrus, and intraparietal sulcus, the superior parietal lobe, cerebellum, and occipital lobe. Thus, violated expectations of pain engage mechanisms supporting salience-driven sensory discrimination, working memory, and associative learning processes. By overriding the influence of expectations on pain, these brain mechanisms are likely engaged in clinical situations in which patients' unrealistic expectations of pain relief diminish the efficacy of pain treatments. Accordingly, these findings underscore the importance of maintaining realistic expectations to augment the effectiveness of pain management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1772-1785
Number of pages14
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Expectations
  • Human
  • Nocebo
  • Pain
  • Placebo
  • Posterior parietal
  • fMRI


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