Relief from pain in humans is rewarding and pleasurable. Primary rewards, or reward-predictive cues, are encoded in brain reward/motivational circuits. While considerable advances have been made in our understanding of reward circuits underlying positive reinforcement, less is known about the circuits underlying the hedonic and reinforcing actions of pain relief. We review findings from electrophysiological, neuroimaging, and behavioral studies supporting the concept that the rewarding effect of pain relief requires opioid signaling in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), activation of midbrain dopamine neurons, and the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Understanding of circuits that govern the reward of pain relief may allow the discovery of more effective and satisfying therapies for patients with acute or chronic pain.
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