Aversion-related circuitry in the cerebellum: responses to noxious heat and unpleasant images.
The cerebellum is reliably activated during both acute and chronic pain conditions, but it is unclear whether the response to aversive painful stimuli can be generalized to other aversive stimuli. We hypothesized that cerebellar activation during pain reflects higher-level encoding of aversive stimuli. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare cerebellar responses in 11 healthy volunteers to noxious heat (46 °C) applied to the hand and to the passive viewing of images selected from the International Affective Picture System. Aversive stimuli in the form of noxious heat and unpleasant pictures (unpleasant vs neutral) activated overlapping areas in the posterior cerebellum, specifically in hemispheric lobule VI, Crus I, and VIIb. Pleasant pictures (pleasant vs neutral) did not share the same pattern of activation as observed with the aversive stimuli. Cerebellar areas that showed functional overlap with both heat pain and unpleasant picture viewing were significantly inversely correlated with fMRI signals measured in limbic system structures, including the anterior hypothalamus, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, and the parahippocampal gyrus. Heat-specific functional connectivity was detected in many regions including primary motor cortex, secondary somatosensory cortex, anterior insula, and the periaqueductal gray. The overlap between cerebellar lobuli reactive to noxious heat and passive viewing of unpleasant images suggest that the cerebellum may contain specific regions involved in encoding generalized aversive processing. The separate cortical networks suggest that noxious heat-evoked responses in the cerebellum can be divided into sensorimotor and emotional networks.