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Pain is a complex experience that is manifest in our brains. A large number of brain regions become active when we feel pain. Continue reading to find out about some of the brain regions that are activated during pain in adult and infant brains

anterior cingulate cortex

Adults had their brain activity recorded during painful stimulation and were asked to rate how unpleasant they found the stimulation. The more unpleasant that a person finds a pain stimulus, the more active the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) becomes. In adults this area of the brain is thought to encode the emotional aspects of pain. We also see activation in the ACC in babies when they receive mildly painful stimulation. 



A structure in the brain called the amygdala becomes active when we experience fear and anxiety. In the adult brain we see strong amygdala activation when a person feels threatened or experiences fear - for example during pain. 

Interestingly, newborn babies do not have any activity in their amygdala when they are given mildly painful stimulation 


insula cortex

The insula can be split into two regions. 

The region at the front of the insula is more active in people who can successfully keep track of their own hear rate. When we experience pain our heart rate may increase and the insula is thought to track our awareness of what is happening inside our bodies. The region at the back of the insula keeps track of how attention - grabbing and potentially threatening a situation is. Only the region at the front of the insula is active in babies when they experience mildly painful stimulation.



The frontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to become fully formed during early human development. This part of the brain is particularly active when we try to stop ourselves from reacting to stimulation or when we pay close attention to something. When we experience pain, the prefrontal cortex is also active, especially when you pay attention to the pain. When you can distract someone from their pain, the activity in this region of the brain is weaker. 


primary somatosensoy cortex

The primary somatosensory cortex contains a map that tells you where something is happening on the body. When you hurt yourself, this part of the brain helps you to work out (in split seconds) where the pain is coming from. In adults each side of the brain detects signals from the opposite side of the body. In babies, this is a little different. Their brain shows activity on both sides when they are touched, independent of whether the touch happened on the left or the right side of their body. 



The thalamus is located in the central core of the human brain and is a key relay station for incoming information from the body. The word "thalamus' has its origin in Greek and means "the inner chamber". The thalamus is often activated by painful stimulation and has many pathways that go to the outer folded regions of the brain, for example to the primary somatosensory cortex.