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Brain Scans Suggest Dread Can Be Similar to Pain

MRI study identifies regions of brain responsible for dread of pain

FRIDAY, May 5 (HealthDay News) -- When given the choice, most people prefer to get unpleasant or painful events over with as soon as possible. Now, a brain imaging study published May 5 in Science suggests an area within the cortical pain matrix is responsible for dreading inevitable discomfort, and anticipation of the pain is similar to the painful stimuli itself in some people.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, Gregory S. Berns, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, examined neural responses in 32 volunteer subjects waiting for an electrical cutaneous shock.

The investigators found that 79 percent of subjects preferred to get the shocks over with quickly. In addition, they identified a subgroup of "extreme dreaders," who actually preferred to get a stronger shock given earlier, as opposed to waiting and receiving a weaker shock. In such subjects, neural activity in posterior elements of their cortical pain matrix increased to a greater extent than mild dreaders.

Extreme dreaders could be identified even when no decision was required, suggesting that "dread derives, in part, from the attention devoted to the expected physical response and not simply from fear or anxiety," the authors write. In an accompanying Perspective, George Loewenstein links this response to the economics of information theory, and suggests that decision-making in health care, the stock market and other areas can be affected if the outcome is anticipated to be pleasurable or painful.

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