We have nothing without nothing? How the brain chooses between pain and profit

Summary: The ventral striatum plays a crucial role when it comes to choosing between future pain and future gain.

Source: McGill university

Imagine having to choose again and again between what you love to do and the pain it might cause you, whether physical or emotional. If you live with conditions like depression, anxiety, or chronic pain, you’re probably used to making these tough choices on a daily or weekly basis. But surprisingly little is known about the areas of the brain involved in such decisions.

In a recent article by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from McGill University show that the ventral striatum plays a crucial role when it comes to choosing between future pain and future gain. Interestingly, this region of the brain has previously been identified as being involved in motivation and rewards, but it has not been associated with pain so far. This finding could advance treatments for a range of disorders characterized by excessive avoidance.

To see which areas of the brain were activated when making decisions about pain and future benefits, participants in the recent study were asked to make choices, very quickly, that involved a certain (random) amount of pain in exchange for a certain (random) amount of profit or vice versa.

Watch the brain make choices

As participants had to choose repeatedly (there were 100 trials) between successive offers of pain or gain, the researchers used brain scans to monitor areas of brain activity. They found that although many different areas of the brain were associated with future pain or money offerings, there was one particular region, the ventral striatum, that consistently turned on or off based on pain or future rewards.

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This finding could advance treatments for a range of disorders characterized by excessive avoidance. Image is in public domain

Using machine learning algorithms, the researchers were able to identify patterns of brain activity that allowed them to not only predict the levels of pain and reward offered, but also whether participants would accept or decline those offers. In fact, they were watching the brain make decisions between future pain and profit.

“It was almost like a dimmer going up or down, depending on whether it was pain or gain,” said Mathieu Roy, associate professor in McGill’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the paper.

“We found that when money was offered, as expected, activity in the ventral striatum increased. But what was interesting was that activity in the same area of ​​the brain decreased in proportion to the pain offered. This suggests that there is a shared representation of pain and gain in the ventral striatum, almost a common currency involved in making decisions where you have to compare the two.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Press office
Source: McGill university
Contact: Press office – McGill University
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Access closed.
“The neural signature of the decision value of future pain” by Michel-Pierre Coll et al. PNAS


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The neural signature of future pain decision value

Pain is the primary driver of action. We often have to voluntarily accept pain in order to gain rewards. Conversely, we may sometimes forgo potential rewards to avoid the associated pain.

In this study, we investigated how the brain represents the decision value of future pain. Participant (not = 57) performed an economic decision task, choosing to accept or reject offers combining various amounts of pain and money presented visually. Functional MRI (fMRI) has been used to measure brain activity throughout the decision-making process.

Using multivariate model analyses, we identified a distributed neural representation predicting potential future pain intensity in each decision and participants’ decisions to accept or avoid pain. This neural representation of the decision value of future pain included negative weights located in domains related to the evaluation of rewards and positive weights in regions associated with salience, negative affect, executive control, and goal-directed action.

We further compared this representation to future monetary rewards, physical pain, and aversive images and found that the representation of future pain overlaps with that of aversive images but is distinct from the pain experienced.

Taken together, the results of this study provide insight into future pain assessment processes and have broad potential implications for our understanding of disorders characterized by difficulties in balancing potential threats and rewards.

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