Pain by mistake: investigating a link between error-related negativity and pain avoidance behavior

Juliane Traxler*, Andreas von Leupoldt, Johan W.S. Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

Abstract

ABSTRACT: Pain can be considered as a signal of "bodily error": Errors put organisms at danger and activate behavioral defensive systems. If the error is of physical nature, pain is the warning signal that motivates protective action such as avoidance behavior to safeguard our body's integrity. Interestingly, an important component of neural error processing, the error-related negativity (ERN), has been found to be related to avoidance in anxiety disorders. The present study is the first to extend these findings to pain and investigate the relationship between ERN and pain-related avoidance behavior. It was hypothesized that individuals with larger ERN amplitudes would show more pain-related avoidance behavior and would be more persistent in their avoidance despite changes in the environment. Fifty-three healthy individuals performed the Eriksen Flanker task during which their brain activity upon correct and erroneous motor responses was recorded by means of high-density electroencephalography. Avoidance behavior was assessed with an arm-reaching task using the HapticMaster robot arm. Results showed that, in contrast to our hypothesis, avoidance was not related to ERN amplitudes. Surprisingly, persons with elevated ERN amplitudes showed low levels of avoidance specifically during early acquisition trials. In contrast to earlier findings in anxiety disorders, individuals with elevated ERN amplitudes did not engage in more pain-related avoidance behavior. In fact, the opposite pattern was found at the start of acquisition: individuals with higher compared to lower ERN amplitudes were slower in learning to avoid pain. Replications and future studies on the relationship between ERN and avoidance behavior are needed.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPain
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 1 Jun 2021

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