The conscious perception of somatosensory stimuli is thought to be located in the contralateral cerebral cortex. However, recent human brain imaging investigations in the spinal system report bilateral primary somatosensory cortex (SI) activations during unilateral noxious stimuli and that this ipsilateral spinal representation may be independent of transcallosal connections. In the trigeminal system, there is primate evidence for an ipsilateral somatosensory pathway through the thalamus to the face SI. However, the organization of the trigeminal nociceptive pathway in the human is not clear. The aim of this study was to determine whether noxious stimuli applied to the face are transmitted to the cerebral cortex by bilateral pathways. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare ipsilateral and contralateral activation of the thalamus, SI and secondary somatosensory cortex (SII) during muscle and cutaneous orofacial pain and innocuous facial stimulation in healthy human subjects. We found that both muscle and cutaneous noxious stimuli, from injections of hypertonic saline into the right masseter or overlying skin, evoked bilateral increases in signal intensity in the region encompassing the ventral posterior thalamus as well as the face region of SI and SII. In contrast, innocuous unilateral brushing of the lower lip evoked a strict contralateral ventroposterior thalamic activation, but bilateral activation of SI and SII. These data indicate that, in contrast to innocuous inputs from the face, noxious information ascends bilaterally to the face SI through the ventroposterior thalamus in humans.
aDepartment of Anatomy and Histology, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
bSchool of Medicine, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, NSW 1797, Australia
cJaw Function and Orofacial Pain Research Unit, Faculty of Dentistry, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
*Corresponding author. Tel.: +61 2 9351 7063; fax: +61 2 9351 6556.
Submitted December 4, 2009; revised July 20, 2010; accepted July 21, 2010.