The effect of pain on involuntary and voluntary capture of attention
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BACKGROUND: There is converging evidence for the notion that pain affects a broad range of attentional domains. This study investigated the influence of pain on the involuntary capture of attention as indexed by the P3a component in the event-related potential derived from the electroencephalogram. METHODS: Participants performed in an auditory oddball task in a pain-free and a pain condition during which they submerged a hand in cold water. Novel, infrequent and unexpected auditory stimuli were presented randomly in a series of frequent standard and infrequent target tones. P3a and P3b amplitudes were observed to novel, unexpected and target-related stimuli, respectively. RESULTS: Both electrophysiological components were characterized by reduced amplitudes in the pain compared with the pain-free condition. Hit rate and reaction time to target stimuli did not differ between the two conditions presumably because the experimental task was not difficult enough to exceed attentional capacities under pain conditions. CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that voluntary attention serving the maintenance and control of ongoing information processing (reflected by the P3b amplitude) is impaired by pain. In addition, the involuntary capture of attention and orientation to novel, unexpected information (measured by the P3a) is also impaired by pain. Thus, neurophysiological measures examined in this study support the theoretical positions proposing that pain can reduce attentional processing capacity. These findings have potentially important implications at the theoretical level for our understanding of the interplay of pain and cognition, and at the therapeutic level for the clinical treatment of individuals experiencing ongoing pain.
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