Chronic pain results in an enormous societal and financial burden. Opioids are the mainstay of treatment, but opioid abuse has led to an epidemic in the United States. Nonpharmacological treatment strategies like deep brain stimulation could be applied to refractory chronic pain if safe and effective brain targets are identified. The anterior insula is a putative mediator of pain-related affective-motivational and cognitive-evaluative cerebral processing. However, the effect of anterior insula stimulation on pain perception is still unknown. Here, the authors provide behavioral and neurophysiological evidence for stimulating the anterior insula as a means of potential therapeutic intervention for patients with chronic pain.
Six patients with epilepsy in whom intracerebral electrodes had been implanted for seizure localization were recruited to the study. The direct anterior insula stimulations were performed in the inpatient epilepsy monitoring unit while subjects were fully awake, comfortable, and without sedating medications. The effects of anterior insula stimulation were assessed with quantitative sensory testing for heat pain threshold, nociceptive-specific cutaneous laser-evoked potentials, and intracranial electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. Control stimulation of noninsular brain regions was performed to test stimulation specificity. Sham stimulations, in which no current was delivered, were also performed to control for potential placebo effects. The safety of these stimulations was evaluated by bedside physicians, real-time intracranial EEG monitoring, and electrocardiogram recordings.
Following anterior insula stimulations, the heat pain threshold of each patient significantly increased from baseline (p < 0.001) and correlated with stimulation intensity (regression analysis: β = 0.5712, standard error 0.070, p < 0.001). Significant changes in ongoing intracranial EEG frequency band powers (p < 0.001), reduction in laser pain intensity, and attenuated laser-evoked potentials were also observed following stimulations. Furthermore, the observed behavioral and neurophysiological effects persisted beyond the stimulations. Subjects were not aware of the stimulations, and there were no cardiovascular or untoward effects.
Additional, nonpharmacological therapies are imperative for the future management of chronic pain conditions and to mitigate the ongoing opioid crisis. This study suggests that direct stimulation of the anterior insula can safely alter cerebral pain processing in humans. Further investigation of the anterior insula as a potential target for therapeutic neuromodulation is underway.