Acute pain has an evolutionary role for the detection of and response to physical harm. In some cases, however, acute pain can impair function and lead to other morbidities. Chronic pain, meanwhile, can present as a psychopathological condition that significantly interferes with daily living. Most basic and translational pain research has focused on the molecular and cellular mechanisms in the spinal and peripheral nervous systems. In contrast, the brain plays a key role in the affective manifestation and cognitive control of pain. In particular, several cortical regions, such as the somatosensory cortex, prefrontal cortex, insular, and anterior cingulate cortex, are well-known to be activated by acute pain signals, and neurons in these regions have been demonstrated to undergo changes in response to chronic pain. Furthermore, these cortical regions can project to a number of forebrain and limbic structures to exert powerful top-down control of not only sensory pain transmission but also affective pain expression, and such cortical regulatory mechanisms are particularly relevant in chronic pain states. Newer techniques have emerged that allow detailed studies of central pain circuits in animal models, as well as how such circuits are modified by the presence of chronic pain and other predisposing psychosomatic factors. These mechanistic approaches can complement imaging in human studies. At the therapeutic level, a number of pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions have recently been shown to engage these top-down control systems to provide analgesia. In this review, we will discuss how pain signals reach important cortical regions, and how these regions in turn project to sub-cortical areas of the brain to exert profound modulation of the pain experience. In addition, we will discuss the clinical relevance of such top-down pain regulation mechanisms.