The thermal grill illusion: unmasking the burn of cold pain

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Science  08 Jul 1994:
Vol. 265, Issue 5169, pp. 252-255
DOI: 10.1126/science.8023144


In Thunberg's thermal grill illusion, first demonstrated in 1896, a sensation of strong, often painful heat is elicited by touching interlaced warm and cool bars to the skin. Neurophysiological recordings from two classes of ascending spinothalamic tract neurons that are sensitive to innocuous or noxious cold showed differential responses to the grill. On the basis of these results, a simple model of central disinhibition, or unmasking, predicted a quantitative correspondence between grill-evoked pain and cold-evoked pain, which was verified psychophysically. This integration of pain and temperature can explain the thermal grill illusion and the burning sensation of cold pain and may also provide a basis for the cold-evoked, burning pain of the classic thalamic pain syndrome.