Effect of phobic visual stimulation on spinal nociception

Gaia Fragiotta, Francesco Pierelli, Gianluca Coppola, Carmela Conte, Armando Perrotta, Mariano Serrao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To explore the role of strong negative emotions in spinal nociception, we evaluated the effect of fear-relevant videos of small animals on the nociceptive withdrawal reflex (NWR) and reflex-related pain perception in healthy subjects with a specific phobia of small animals. Twenty healthy subjects with a specific phobia of small animals diagnosed according to DSM-V criteria were included in this study. The NWR was evoked in the lower limb by stimulating the sural nerve and recording EMG activity in the biceps femoris. NWR pain-related perception was quantified on an 11-point numerical rating scale (NRS). Subjects were examined during 4 recording sessions. In the baseline session, no images were projected. In the other sessions, the subjects were invited to watch a video containing either neutral or phobic content. To evaluate neurovegetative responses, we measured heart rate using a pulse oximeter during each recording session. A series of clinical rating scales were administered to subjects to evaluate disgust, fear, and anxiety. The NWR amplitude was significantly increased during the phobic video session and was associated with the fear inventory scale scores. Women showed higher NWR amplitude values during the phobic video session and a lower recovery rate during the after-effect video session than did men. The NWR amplitude and related pain perception were dissociated from each other during the phobic video session, as the NRS score remained unchanged while the NWR increased in amplitude. Emotions induced by the viewing of phobic videos seem to enhance the activation of the spinal circuitries involved in nociception and the withdrawal reaction without interfering with pain processing pathways or dissociating the reflex response from related pain perception. This effect appears to differ by sex, as it was more intense and longer lasting in women than in men. Emotions induced by phobic video viewing increase the alertness devoted to the defensive reaction by emphasizing nociceptive responses independently from pain perception. The NWR may represent an interesting tool for exploring the interaction between strong negative emotions and spinal nociception. A better understanding of this mechanism may be a theoretical prerequisite for the optimization of pain management in several chronic pain syndromes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-27
Number of pages6
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
Publication statusPublished - Jul 1 2019


  • Emotion
  • Flexor reflex
  • Pain modulation
  • Specific phobia
  • Spinal nociception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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