Does throbbing pain have a brain signature?

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SummaryThis patient with migraine developed a persistent sense of throbbing, without pain. Her electroencephalogram describes what may be a neurophysiological correlate of the throbbing quality.Pain sometimes has a throbbing, pulsating quality, particularly when it is severe and disabling. We recently challenged the presumption that this throbbing quality is a sensory experience of arterial pulsations, but were unable to offer an alternative explanation for its rhythmic character. Here we report a case study of a woman with a history of daily headache consistent with the diagnosis of chronic migraine, but whose throbbing quality persisted long after the resolution of the headache. This chronic, daily, and persistent throbbing sensation, in the absence of headache pain, prompted closer examination for its neurophysiological correlate. By simultaneously recording the subjective report of the throbbing rhythm, arterial pulse, and high-density electroencephalogram, we found that the subjective throbbing rate (48 ± 1.7 beats per minute) and heart rate (68 ± 2 beats per minute) were distinct, in accord with our previous observations that the 2 are unrelated. On spectral analysis of the electroencephalogram, we found that the overall amount of activity in the alpha range (8 to 12 Hz), or alpha power, increased in association with greater throbbing intensity. In addition, we also found that the rhythmic oscillations of overall alpha power, the so-called modulations of alpha power, coincided with the timing of the throbbing rhythm, and that this synchrony, or coherence, was proportional to the subjective intensity of the throbbing quality. This index case will motivate further studies whose aim is to determine whether modulations of alpha power could more generally represent a neurophysiological correlate of the throbbing quality of pain.

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