Motor cortex stimulation (MCS) is relatively recent neurosurgical technique for pain control, the use of which is growing steadily since its description in the last decade. While clinical series show that at least 50% of patients with chronic, pharmacoresistant neuropathic pain may benefit from this technique, the mechanisms of action of MCS remain elusive. In this review, we synthesise a number of studies that, combining electrophysiology and functional imaging, have permitted to proceed from phenomenology to models that may account for part of such mechanisms. MCS appears to trigger rapid and phasic activation in the lateral thalamus, which leads to a cascade of events of longer time-course in medial thalamus, anterior cingulate/orbitofrontal cortices and periaqueductal grey matter. Activity in these latter structures is delayed relative to actual cortical neurostimulation and becomes maximal during the hours that follow MCS arrest. Current hypotheses suggest that MCS may act through at least two mechanisms: activation of perigenual cingulate and orbitofrontal areas may modulate the emotional appraisal of pain, rather than its intensity, while top down activation of brainstem PAG may lead to descending inhibition toward the spinal cord. Recent evidence also points to a possible secretion of endogenous opioids triggered by chronic MCS. This, along with the delayed and long-lasting activation of several brain structures, is consistent with the clinical effects of MCS, which may also last for hours or days after MCS discontinuation. © 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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