Rodent functional and anatomical imaging of pain

Scott J. Thompson, M. Catherine Bushnell

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Human brain imaging has provided much information about pain processing and pain modulation, but brain imaging in rodents can provide information not attainable in human studies. First, the short lifespan of rats and mice, as well as the ability to have homogenous genetics and environments, allows for longitudinal studies of the effects of chronic pain on the brain. Second, brain imaging in animals allows for the testing of central actions of novel pharmacological and nonpharmacological analgesics before they can be tested in humans. The two most commonly used brain imaging methods in rodents are magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). MRI provides better spatial and temporal resolution than PET, but PET allows for the imaging of neurotransmitters and non-neuronal cells, such as astrocytes, in addition to functional imaging. One problem with rodent brain imaging involves methods for keeping the subject still in the scanner. Both anesthetic agents and restraint techniques have potential confounds. Some PET methods allow for tracer uptake before the animal is anesthetized, but imaging a moving animal also has potential confounds. Despite the challenges associated with the various techniques, the 31 studies using either functional MRI or PET to image pain processing in rodents have yielded surprisingly consistent results, with brain regions commonly activated in human pain imaging studies (somatosensory cortex, cingulate cortex, thalamus) also being activated in the majority of these studies. Pharmacological imaging in rodents shows overlapping activation patterns with pain and opiate analgesics, similar to what is found in humans. Despite the many structural imaging studies in human chronic pain patients, only one study has been performed in rodents, but that study confirmed human findings of decreased cortical thickness associated with chronic pain. Future directions in rodent pain imaging include miniaturized PET for the freely moving animal, as well as new MRI techniques that enable ongoing chronic pain imaging.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)131-139
Number of pages9
JournalNeuroscience Letters
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 29 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
SJT was supported by a grant from Astra Zeneca Canada. We would like to thank Laura S Stone for her insightful comments on the manuscript.


  • Imaging
  • MRI
  • PET
  • Pain
  • Preclinical
  • Rodent


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