Modeling neural and self-reported factors of affective distress in the relationship between pain and working memory in healthy individuals

Steven R. Anderson, Joanna E. Witkin, Taylor Bolt, Maria M. Llabre, Claire E. Ashton-James, Elizabeth A. Reynolds Losin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The relationship between pain and cognition has primarily been investigated in patients with chronic pain and healthy participants undergoing experimental pain. Recently, there has been interest in understanding the disruptive effects of non-experimental pain in otherwise healthy individuals. Recent studies suggest that healthy individuals reporting pain also demonstrate decrements in working memory (WM) performance, however factors contributing to this relationship remain poorly understood. The present study examined the association between pain and WM in a large community-based sample of healthy individuals and investigated whether self-reported affective distress and medial frontal cortex activity might help to explain this relationship. To address these research questions, a large publicly available dataset from the Human Connectome Project (N = 416) was sourced and structural equation modeling was utilized to examine relationships between pain intensity experienced over the past 7 days, self-reported affective distress, performance on a WM (n-back) task, and task-related activation in the medial frontal cortex. Examining participants who reported non-zero pain intensity in the past 7 days (n = 228), we found a direct negative association between pain intensity and performance on the WM n-back task, consistent with prior findings. Self-reported affective distress was not associated with WM performance. Additionally, pain intensity was indirectly associated with WM performance via WM task-related activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Our findings suggest that pain experienced in everyday life by otherwise healthy individuals may directly impact WM performance. Furthermore, WM task-related increases in vmPFC activity may be a factor contributing to this relationship.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107766
StatePublished - Mar 12 2021


  • Affective distress
  • Pain intensity
  • n-back task
  • vmPFC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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