Spinal nociception is facilitated during cognitive distraction

Mauricio Carlos Henrich*, Ken Steffen Frahm, Robert C Coghill, Ole Kæseler Andersen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
20 Downloads (Pure)


The nociceptive withdrawal reflex (NWR) is a behavioral response to protect the body from noxious stimuli. The spatial characteristics of the stimulus modulate the reflex response to prevent damage to the affected tissue. Interneurons in the deep dorsal horn in the spinal cord encode the relationship between stimulus characteristics and the magnitude of the NWR and are also likely integrating spatial information of the nociceptive stimulus. The aim of this study was to use the NWR to investigate whether the spinal spatial integration of a simultaneous stimulus is modulated by shifting the attention of the participant towards (attention) or away from (distraction) the stimulus. We hypothesized that the descending activity shapes the receptive fields of the spinal neurons encoding spatial integration of nociception. Twenty healthy volunteers participated in the study. Single and simultaneous stimuli were delivered through two stimulating electrodes located in the arch and on the lateral side in the sole of the foot. The NWR was quantified by electromyography from the Tibialis Anterior and Biceps Femoris muscles during baseline and active tasks (attention and distraction). During the baseline task, spatial summation of the NWR was evoked during simultaneous stimulation. During the distraction task, the NWR was significantly larger compared to baseline, regardless of the sites being stimulated (single and simultaneous stimuli). In contrast, the NWR recorded during the attention task did not differ from baseline. These results further support that the spinal NWR pathway is under descending control which can be modulated by cognitive processes. The NWRs recorded over both proximal and distal muscles were similarly affected by the tasks, suggesting that the descending control affects the lower leg spinal system, with no discrimination between spinal segments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-145
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.


  • attention
  • cognitive
  • distraction
  • modulation
  • nociception
  • reflex


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