The hypothalamus couples with the brainstem to cause migraines

This 2016 German human study with one subject found:

“The hypothalamus to be the primary generator of migraine attacks which, due to specific interactions with specific areas in the higher and lower brainstem, could alter the activity levels of the key regions of migraine pathophysiology.”

The subject underwent daily fMRI scans, and procedures to evoke brain activity. She didn’t take any medications, and suffered three migraine attacks during the 31-day experimental period.

Neuroskeptic commented:

“The dorsal pons has previously been found to be hyperactive during migraine. It’s been dubbed the brain’s ‘migraine generator.’ Schulte and May’s data suggest that this is not entirely true – rather, it looks like the hypothalamus may be the true generator of migraine, while the brainstem could be a downstream mediator of the disorder.

A hypothalamic origin of migraines would help to explain some of the symptoms of the disorder, such as changes in appetite, that often accompany the headaches.”


The above graphic looks like the result of feedback mechanisms that either didn’t exist or inadequately handled the triggering event. Other examples of the hypothalamus lacking feedback or being involved in a deviated feedback loop include:

There are many unanswered questions with a one-person study, of course. Addressing the cause of this painful condition would find out when, where, and how a person’s hypothalamus became modified to express migraine tendencies.

I’d guess that migraine tendencies may appear as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, given that a highly functional hypothalamus is needed for survival and development in our earliest lives. Gaining as much familial and historical information as possible from the person would be necessary steps in therapies that address migraine causes.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2016/05/22/pinpointing-origins-of-migraine/ “Pinpointing the Origins of Migraine in the Brain”

Observing pain in others had long-lasting brain effects

This 2016 Israeli human study used whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) to study pain perception in military veterans:

Our findings demonstrate alterations in pain perception following extreme pain exposure, chart the sequence from automatic to evaluative pain processing, and emphasize the importance of considering past experiences in studying the neural response to others’ states.

Differences in brain activation to ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ in the PCC [posterior cingulate cortex] emerged only among controls. This suggests that prior exposure to extreme pain alters the typical brain response to pain by blurring the distinction between painful and otherwise identical but nonpainful stimuli, and that this blurring of the ‘pain effect’ stems from increased responses to ‘no pain’ rather than from attenuated response to pain.”


Limitations included:

  • “The pain-exposed participants showed posttraumatic symptoms, which may also be related to the observed alterations in the brain response to pain.
  • We did not include pain threshold measurements. However, the participants’ sensitivity to experienced pain may have had an effect on the processing of observed pain.
  • The regions of interest for the examination of pain processing in the pain-exposed group were defined on the basis of the results identified in the control group.
  • We did not detect pain-related activations in additional regions typically associated with pain perception, such as the anterior insula and ACC. This may be related to differences between the MEG and fMRI neuroimaging approaches.”

The subjects self-administered oxytocin or placebo per the study’s design. However:

“We chose to focus on the placebo condition and to test group differences at baseline only, in light of the recent criticism on underpowered oxytocin administration studies, and thus all following analyses are reported for the placebo condition.”


A few questions:

  1. If observing others’ pain caused “increased responses to ‘no pain’,” wouldn’t the same effect or more be expected from experiencing one’s own pain?
  2. If there’s evidence for item 1, then why aren’t “increased responses to ‘no pain'” of affected people overtly evident in everyday life?
  3. If item 2 is often observed, then what are the neurobiological consequences for affected people’s suppression of “increased responses to ‘no pain’?”
  4. Along with the effects of item 3, what may be behavioral, emotional, and other evidence of this suppressed pain effect?
  5. What would it take for affected people to regain a normal processing of others’ “‘pain’ and ‘no pain’?”

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299546838_Prior_exposure_to_extreme_pain_alters_neural_response_to_pain_in_others “Prior exposure to extreme pain alters neural response to pain in others” Thanks to one of the authors, Ruth Feldman, for providing the full study

Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum

This 2016 US human study found:

“A link between existing data on the anatomical and physiological characteristics of striatal regions and psychological functions.

Because we did not limit our metaanalysis to studies that specifically targeted striatal function, our results extend previous knowledge of the involvement of the striatum in reward-related decision-making tasks, and provide a detailed functional map of regional specialization for diverse psychological functions, some of which are sometimes thought of as being the exclusive domain of the PFC [prefrontal cortex].”

The analysis led to dividing the striatum into five segments:

Ventral striatum (VS):

  • Stimulus Value
  • Terms such as “reward,” “losses,” and “craving”
  • The most representative study reported that monetary and social rewards activate overlapping regions within the VS.
  • Together with the above finding of a reliable coactivation with OFC [orbitofrontal cortex] and ventromedial PFC, this finding suggests a broad involvement of this area in representing stimulus value and related stimulus-driven motivational states.

Anterior caudate (Ca) Nucleus:

  • Incentive Behavior
  • Terms such as “grasping,” “reaching,” and “reinforcement”
  • The most representative study reported a stronger blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response in this region during trials in which participants had a chance of winning or losing money in a card guessing game, in comparison to trials where participants merely received feedback about the accuracy of their guess.
  • This result suggests a role in evaluating the value of different actions, contrasting with the above role of the VS in evaluating the value of stimuli.

Posterior putamen (Pp):

  • Sensorimotor Processes
  • Terms such as “foot,” “noxious,” and “taste”
  • The most representative study reported activation of this region in response to painful stimulation at the back of the left hand and foot of participants. Anatomically, the most reliable and specific coactivation is with sensorimotor cortices, and the posterior and midinsula and operculum (secondary somatosensory cortex SII) in particular, some parts of which are specifically associated with pain.
  • Together, these findings suggest a broad involvement of this area in sensorimotor functions, including aspects of their affective qualities.

Anterior putamen (Pa):

  • Social- and Language-Related Functions
  • Terms such as “read,” “vocal,” and “empathic”
  • The most representative study partially supports a role of this area in social- and language-related functions; it reported a stronger activation of the Pa in experienced singers, but not when novices were singing.
  • It is coactivated with frontal areas anterior to the ones coactivated with the Pp, demonstrating topography in frontostriatal associations. These anterior regions have been implicated in language processes.

Posterior caudate (Cp) Nucleus:

  • Executive Functions
  • Terms such as “causality,” “rehearsal,” and “arithmetic”
  • The representative study reported this region to be part of a network that included dorsolateral PFC and ACC, which supported inhibitory control and task set-shifting.
  • These results suggest a broad, and previously underappreciated, role for the Cp in cognitive control.

The authors presented comparisons of the above striatal segments with other analyses of striatal zones.


One of the coauthors was the lead researcher of the 2015 Advance science by including emotion in research. The current study similarly used a coactivation view rather than a connectivity paradigm of:

“Inferring striatal function indirectly via psychological functions of connected cortical regions.”

Another of the coauthors was a developer of the system used by the current study and by The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts, and he provided feedback to those authors regarding proper use of the system.


The researchers’ “unbiased, data-driven approach” had to work around the cortical biases evident in many of the 5,809 human imaging studies analyzed. The authors referred to the biases in statements such as:

“The majority of studies investigating these psychological functions report activity preferentially in cortical areas, except for studies investigating reward-related and motor functions.”

The methods and results of research with cortical biases influenced the study’s use of:

“Word frequencies of psychological terms in the full text of studies, rather than a detailed analysis of psychological tasks and statistical contrasts.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/7/1907.full “Regional specialization within the human striatum for diverse psychological functions”

Does vasopressin increase mutually beneficial cooperation?

This 2016 German human study found:

“Intranasal administration of arginine vasopressin (AVP), a hormone that regulates mammalian social behaviors such as monogamy and aggression, increases humans’ tendency to engage in mutually beneficial cooperation.

AVP increases humans’ willingness to cooperate. That increase is not due to an increase in the general willingness to bear risks or to altruistically help others.”


One limitation of the study was that the subjects were all males, ages 19-32. The study’s title was “human risky cooperative behavior” while omitting subjects representing the majority of humanity.

Although the researchers claimed brain effects from vasopressin administration, they didn’t provide direct evidence for the internasally administered vasopressin in the subjects’ brains. A similar point was made about studies of vasopressin’s companion neuropeptide, oxytocin, in Testing the null hypothesis of oxytocin’s effects in humans.

A third limitation was that although the researchers correlated brain activity with social behaviors, they didn’t carry out all of the tests necessary to demonstrate the claimed “novel causal evidence for a biological factor underlying cooperation.” Per Confusion may be misinterpreted as altruism and prosocial behavior, the researchers additionally needed to:

“When attempting to measure social behaviors, it is not sufficient to merely record decisions with behavioral consequences and then infer social preferences. One also needs to manipulate these consequences to test whether this affects the behavior.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/113/8/2051.full “Vasopressin increases human risky cooperative behavior”

Advance science by including emotion in research

This 2015 analysis of emotion studies found:

“Emotion categories [fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness] are not contained within any one region or system, but are represented as configurations across multiple brain networks.

For example, among other systems, information diagnostic of emotion category was found in both large, multi-functional cortical networks and in the thalamus, a small region composed of functionally dedicated sub-nuclei.

The dataset consists of activation foci from 397 fMRI and PET [positron emission tomography] studies of emotion published between 1990 and 2011.”

From the fascinating Limitations section:

“Our analyses reflect the composition of the studies available in the literature, and are subject to testing and reporting biases on the part of authors. This is particularly true for the amygdala (e.g., the activation intensity for negative emotions may be over-represented in the amygdala given the theoretical focus on fear and related negative states). Other interesting distinctions were encoded in the thalamus and cerebellum, which have not received the theoretical attention that the amygdala has and are likely to be bias-free.

Some regions—particularly the brainstem—are likely to be much more important for understanding and diagnosing emotion than is apparent in our findings, because neuroimaging methods are only now beginning to focus on the brainstem with sufficient spatial resolution and artifact-suppression techniques.

We should not be too quick to dismiss findings in ‘sensory processing’ areas, etc., as methodological artifacts. Emotional responses may be inherently linked to changes in sensory and motor cortical processes that contribute to the emotional response.

The results we present here provide a co-activation based view of emotion representation. Much of the information processing in the brain that creates co-activation may not relate to direct neural connectivity at all, but rather to diffuse modulatory actions (e.g., dopamine and neuropeptide release, much of which is extrasynaptic and results in volume transmission). Thus, the present results do not imply direct neural connectivity, and may be related to diffuse neuromodulatory actions as well as direct neural communication.”


Why did the researchers use only 397 fMRI and PET studies? Why weren’t there hundreds or thousands of times more candidate studies from which to select?

The relative paucity of candidate emotion studies demonstrated the prevalence of other researchers’ biases for cortical brain areas. The lead researcher of the current study was a coauthor of the 2016 Empathy, value, pain, control: Psychological functions of the human striatum, whose researchers mentioned that even their analyses of 5,809 human imaging studies was hampered by other imaging-studies researchers’ cortical biases.

Functional MRI signals depend on the changes in blood flow that follow changes in brain activity. Study designers intentionally limit their findings when they scan brain areas and circuits that are possibly activated by human emotions, yet exclude emotional content that may activate these areas and circuits.

Here are a few examples of limited designs that led to limited findings when there was the potential for so much more:

It’s well past time to change these practices now that we’re in 2016.


This study provided many methodological tests that should be helpful for research that includes emotion. It showed that there aren’t impenetrable barriers – other than popular memes, beliefs, and ingrained dogmas – to including emotional content in studies.

Including emotional content may often be appropriate and informative, with the resultant findings advancing science. Here are a few recent studies that did so:

http://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.1004066 “A Bayesian Model of Category-Specific Emotional Brain Responses”

It is known: Are a study’s agendas more important than its evidence?

This 2015 Swiss human study’s Abstract began:

“It is known that increased circulating glucocorticoids in the wake of excessive, chronic, repetitive stress increases anxiety and impairs Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) signaling.”


The study had several statements that were unconvincingly supported by the study’s findings. One such statement in the Conclusions section was:

“This study supports the view that early-life adversity may induce long-lasting epigenetic changes in stress-related genes, thus offering clues as to how intergenerational transmission of anxiety and trauma could occur.”

However, the study’s evidence for “intergenerational transmission of anxiety and trauma” as summarized in the Limitations section was:

“This study did not directly associate child behavior or biology to maternal behavior and biology.”

In another example, the Discussion section began with:

“The severity of maternal anxiety was significantly correlated with mean overall methylation of 4 CpG sites located in exon IV of the BDNF promoter region as measured from DNA extracted from mothers’ saliva.

In addition, methylation at CpG3 was also significantly associated with maternal exposure to domestic violence during childhood, suggesting that BDNF gene methylation levels are modulated by early adverse experiences.”

The researchers assessed five DNA methylation values (four individual sites and the overall average). The CpG3 site was “significantly associated with maternal exposure to domestic violence during childhood” and the three other CpG sites’ methylation values were not.

IAW, the researchers found only one of four sites’ methylation values significantly associated to only one of many studied early adverse experiences. This finding didn’t provide sufficient evidence to support the overarching statement:

“BDNF gene methylation levels are modulated by early adverse experiences.”

To make such a generally applicable statement – more than one BDNF gene’s methylation levels could be directly altered by more than one early adverse experience – the researchers would, at a minimum, need to provide evidence that:

  1. The one category of significantly associated early adverse experience directly altered the one significantly associated CpG site’s DNA methylation level
  2. Other categories of early adverse experiences were fairly represented by the one significantly associated experience category
  3. Other categories of early adverse experiences could directly alter other BDNF genes’ DNA methylation levels
  4. The significantly associated DNA methylation level of only one out of four CpG sites was fairly represented by the overall average of the four sites
  5. Other BDNF gene’s methylation levels were fairly represented by the overall average of the four sites

If researchers and sponsors must have agendas, a worthwhile, evidence-supported one would be to investigate prenatal and perinatal epigenetic causes for later-life adverse effects.

As Grokking an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score pointed out, environmental factors that disrupt neurodevelopment may be the largest originators of epigenetic changes that are sustained throughout an individual’s entire lifespan.

What’s the downside of conducting studies that may “directly associate child behavior or biology to maternal behavior and biology” during time periods when a child’s environment has the greatest impact on their development?

When prenatal and perinatal periods aren’t addressed, researchers and sponsors neglect the times during which many harmful epigenetic consequences may be prevented. It is known.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0143427 “BDNF Methylation and Maternal Brain Activity in a Violence-Related Sample”

The function of the dorsal ACC is to monitor pain in survival contexts

This 2015 California human study was of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC):

“No neural region has been associated with more conflicting accounts of its function than the dACC.

The best psychological description of dACC function was related to pain processing—not executive, conflict, or salience processing.

We conclude by considering that physical pain may be an instance of a broader class of survival-relevant goals monitored by the dACC, in contrast to more arbitrary temporary goals, which may be monitored by the supplementary motor area.”

A related brain area – the paracingulate sulcus (PCS) – and its impact on the study’s findings was discussed in the supplementary material:

“The PCS is present in a subset of the population and thus extends the dACC further in the dorsal direction. This possible additional sulcus is relevant because, for some individuals, the ventral portion of the SMA [supplementary motor area]/pre-SMA may actually be the PCS.

The vast majority of fMRI studies overlook most individual differences in neuroanatomy and depend on the probabilistic neuroanatomy averaged across a group of participants and then on standard atlases that typically don’t take these individual differences into account.

There are two structural forms of PCS. The “prominent” form extends through the entire dACC region; however the “present” form begins in the rostral ACC and ends near the anterior border of the dACC.

Men are significantly more likely than women to have unilateral or bilateral PCS.

Additionally, six morphology studies have indicated the existence of a PCS that is left-lateralized.”

How about that? A brain area that:

  • Assists in monitoring pain in the contexts of survival goals;
  • Size, form, and placement varies widely among individuals;
  • Is missing in some people!

Here’s a long critique of the study that included dialog with the authors:

http://www.talyarkoni.org/blog/2015/12/14/still-not-selective-comment-on-comment-on-comment-on-lieberman-eisenberger-2015/

“If you observe activation in dACC..your single best guess as to what process might be involved..should be ‘motor’ by a landslide. You could also guess ‘reward’ or ‘working memory’ with about the same probability as ‘pain.’

Of course, the more general message you should take away from this is that it’s probably a bad idea to infer any particular process on the basis of observed activity.”


And the authors’ “last comment”:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/social-brain-social-mind/201601/more-evidence-pain-related-description-dacc

“Based on Neurosynth evidence, is more of the dACC selective for pain than for attention, autonomic, avoidance, conflict, emotion, error, executive, fear, negative affect, response inhibition, response selection, reward, and salience? Absolutely.”

http://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15250.full “The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is selective for pain: Results from large-scale reverse inference”