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Behavioral and Regional Brain Responses to Inhalation of Capsaicin Modified by Painful Conditioning in Humans

Dimmock, Matthew



BACKGROUND: Cough is a defense mechanism that protects the airways and lungs in response to airway irritation. The sensory neurons involved in detecting airway irritants and the neural pathways mediating cough share similarities with those that encode pain from the body. Painful conditioning stimuli applied to one body site are known to reduce the perception of pain at another. However, whether the neural regulation of cough is influenced by painful stimuli is not known. RESEARCH QUESTION: What are the behavioral and neural outcomes of painful conditioning stimuli on urge-to-cough (UTC) and cough evoked by inhaled capsaicin? STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: Sixteen healthy participants underwent psychophysical testing and functional MRI while completing a series of capsaicin inhalations to induce UTC and cough. The responses associated with capsaicin inhalation without pain were compared with those after the application of painful conditioning stimuli. RESULTS: Significant decreases were seen behaviorally of 18.7% ± 17.3% (P < .001) and 47.0% ± 30.8% (P < .001) in participants' UTC ratings and cough frequencies, respectively, during the application of pain. UTC ratings were reduced by 24.2% ± 36.5% (P < .005) and increased by 67% ± 40% (P < .001) for capsaicin and saline inhalation, respectively, during the scanning session. Painful conditioning stimuli were associated with widespread decreases in regional brain responses to capsaicin inhalation (P < .001). Several brain regions showed levels of reduced activation attributable to painful conditioning that correlated with related changes in behavioral responses during scanning (R2 = 0.53). INTERPRETATION: Pain-related decreases of cough and UTC are accompanied by widespread changes in brain activity during capsaicin inhalation, suggesting that pain can modify the central processing of inputs arising from the airways. A mechanistic understanding of how cough and pain processing interact within the brain may help develop more effective therapies to reduce unwanted coughing.


Dimmock, M., Abubakar, A. B., Bautista, T. G., Mazzone, S. B., & Farrell, M. J. (2021). Behavioral and Regional Brain Responses to Inhalation of Capsaicin Modified by Painful Conditioning in Humans. Chest, 159(3), 1136-1146.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 27, 2020
Online Publication Date Sep 11, 2020
Publication Date 2021-03
Journal CHEST
Print ISSN 0012-3692
Publisher Elsevier
Volume 159
Issue 3
Pages 1136-1146
Publisher URL