Sex differences in brain response to anticipated and experienced visceral pain in healthy subjects

Michiko Kano, Adam D. Farmer, Qasim Aziz, Vincent P. Giampietro, Michael J. Brammer, Steven C.R. Williams, Shin Fukudo, Steven J. Coen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


Women demonstrate higher pain sensitivity and prevalence of chronic visceral pain conditions such as functional gastrointestinal disorders than men. The role of sex differences in the brain processing of visceral pain is still unclear. In 16 male and 16 female healthy subjects we compared personality, anxiety levels, skin conductance response (SCR), and brain processing using functional MRI during anticipation and pain induced by esophageal distension at pain toleration level. There was no significant difference in personality scores, anxiety levels, SCR, and subjective ratings of pain between sexes. In group analysis, both men and women demonstrated a similar pattern of brain activation and deactivation during anticipation and pain consistent with previous reports. However, during anticipation women showed significantly greater activation in the cuneus, precuneus, and supplementary motor area (SMA) and stronger deactivation in the right amygdala and left parahippocampal gyrus, whereas men demonstrated greater activation in the cerebellum. During pain, women demonstrated greater activation in the midcingulate cortex, anterior insula, premotor cortex, and cerebellum and stronger deactivation in the caudate, whereas men showed increased activity in the SMA. The pattern of brain activity suggests that, during anticipation, women may demonstrate stronger limbic inhibition, which is considered to be a cognitive modulation strategy for impending painful stimulation. During pain, women significantly activate brain areas associated with the affective and motivation components of pain. These responses may underlie the sex differences that exist in pain conditions, whereby women may attribute more emotional importance to painful stimuli compared with men.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)G687-G699
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Anticipation
  • Functional brain imaging
  • Human
  • Midcingulate cortex
  • Sex
  • Visceral pain


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