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Papers of the Week

Papers: 29 May 2021 - 4 Jun 2021

Human Studies


PLoS One



Attentional processing of pain faces and other emotional faces in chronic pain-an eye-tracking study.


Priebe JA, Horn-Hofmann C, Wolf D, Wolff S, Heesen M, Knippenberg-Bigge K, Lang P, Lautenbacher S
PLoS One. 2021; 16(5):e0252398.
PMID: 34048466.


Altered attentional processing of pain-associated stimuli-which might take the form of either avoidance or enhanced vigilance-is thought to be implicated in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. In contrast to reaction time tasks like the dot probe, eye tracking allows for tracking the time course of visual attention and thus differentiating early and late attentional processes. Our study aimed at investigating visual attention to emotional faces in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain (N = 20) and matched pain-free controls (N = 20). Emotional faces (pain, angry, happy) were presented in pairs with a neutral face for 2000 ms each. Three parameters were determined: First fixation probabilities, fixation durations (overall and divided in four 500 ms intervals) and a fixation bias score as the relative fixation duration of emotional faces compared to neutral faces. There were no group differences in any of the parameters. First fixation probabilities were lower for pain faces than for angry faces. Overall, we found longer fixation duration on emotional compared to neutral faces ('emotionality bias'), which is in accord with previous research. However, significant longer fixation duration compared to the neutral face was detected only for happy and angry but not for pain faces. In addition, fixation durations as well as bias scores yielded evidence for vigilant-avoidant processing of pain faces in both groups. These results suggest that attentional bias towards pain-associated stimuli might not generally differentiate between healthy individuals and chronic pain patients. Exaggerated attentional bias in patients might occur only under specific circumstances, e.g., towards stimulus material specifically relating to the specific pain of the patients under study or under high emotional distress.