Assessing the specificity of the relationship between brain alpha oscillations and tonic pain

Valentini E, Halder S, McInnerney D, Cooke J, Gyimes IL, Romei V


Recent research proposed that the slowing of individual alpha frequency (IAF) could be an objective marker of pain. However, it is unclear whether this research can fully address the requirements of specificity and sensitivity of IAF to the pain experience. Here, we sought to develop a robust methodology for assessing the specificity of the relationship between alpha oscillations and acute tonic pain in healthy individuals. We recorded electroencephalography (EEG) of 36 volunteers during consecutive 5-minute sessions of painful hot water immersion, innocuous warm water immersion and aversive, non-painful auditory stimulus, matched by unpleasantness to the painful condition. Participants rated stimulus unpleasantness throughout each condition. We isolated two regions of the scalp displaying peak alpha activity across participants: centro-parietal (CP) and parieto-occipital (PO) ROI. In line with previous research our findings revealed decreased IAF during hot compared with warm stimulation, however the effect was not specific for pain as we found no difference between hot and sound in the CP ROI (compared to baseline). In contrast, the PO ROI reported the same pattern of differences, but their direction was opposite to the CP in that this ROI revealed faster frequency during hot condition than controls. Finally, we show that IAF in both ROIs did not mediate the relationship between the experimental manipulation and the affective experience. Altogether, these findings emphasize the importance of a robust methodological and analytical design to disclose the functional role of alpha oscillations during affective processing. Likewise, they suggest the absence of a causal role of IAF in the generation of acute pain experience in healthy individuals.