University of Sussex
2 files

Emotional and autonomic consequences of spinal cord injury explored using functional brain imaging

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 13:59 authored by Alessia Nicotra, Hugo CritchleyHugo Critchley, Christopher J Mathias, Raymond J Dolan
In health, emotions are integrated with autonomic bodily responses. Emotional stimuli elicit changes in somatic (including autonomic) bodily states, which feedback to influence the expression of emotional feelings. In patients with spinal cord injury (SCI), this integration of emotion and bodily arousal is partially disrupted, impairing both efferent generation of sympathetic responses and afferent sensory feedback of visceral state via the spinal cord. A number of theoretical accounts of emotion predict emotional deficits in SCI patients, particularly at the level of emotional feelings, yet evidence for such a deficit is equivocal. We used functional MRI (fMRI) and a basic emotional learning paradigm to investigate the expression of emotion-related brain activity consequent upon SCI. We scanned seven SCI patients and seven healthy controls during an aversive fear conditioning task. Subjects viewed randomized presentations of four angry faces. One of the faces (CS + arm) was associated with delivery of electrical shock to the upper arm on 50% of trials. This shock was painful to all subjects. A face of the same gender acted as a safe' control stimulus (CS - arm). In both control subjects and SCI patients, painful cutaneous stimulation of the arm evoked enhanced activity within components of a central pain matrix, including dorsal anterior cingulate, right insula and medial temporal lobe. However, SCI patients differed from controls in conditioning-related brain activity. SCI patients showed a relative enhancement of activity within dorsal anterior cingulate, periaqueductal grey matter (PAG) and superior temporal gyrus. Conversely, SCI patients showed relative attenuation of activity in subgenual cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices to threat of painful arm stimulation (CS + arm > CS - arm). Our findings provide evidence for differences in emotion-related brain activity in SCI patients. We suggest that the observed functional abnormalities including enhanced anterior cingulate and PAG reflect central sensitization of the pain matrix, while decreased subgenual cingulate activity may represent a substrate underlying affective vulnerability in SCI patients consequent upon perturbation of autonomic control and afferent visceral representation. Together these observations may account for motivational and affective sequelae of SCI in some individuals.


Publication status

  • Published






Oxford University Press





Page range


Department affiliated with

  • BSMS Publications

Full text available

  • Yes

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Publications)


    No categories selected