Facial expression is a distinctive behavioural marker of pain processing in the brain

  1. Department of psychology, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  2. Centre de recherche de l’institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  3. Department of medical psychology and sociology, Medical faculty, University of Augsburg, Augsburg, Germany
  4. School of psychology, Université Laval, Quebec, Quebec, Canada
  5. Faculty of Dentistry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  6. Department of Anesthesia, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  7. Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  8. Department of psychological and brain sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, United States
  9. Stomatology department, Faculté de médecine dentaire, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada


  • Reviewing Editor
    José Biurrun Manresa
    National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), National University of Entre Ríos (UNER), Oro Verde, Argentina
  • Senior Editor
    Christian Büchel
    University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

Picard et al. report a novel neural signature of facial expressions of pain. In other words, they provide evidence that a specific set of brain activations, as measured by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), can tell us when someone is expressing pain via a concerted activation of distinctive facial muscles. They demonstrate that this signature provides a better characterization of this pain behaviour when compared with other signatures of pain reported by past research. The Facial Expression of Pain Signature (FEPS) thus enriches this collection and, if further validated, may allow scientists to identify the neural structures subserving important non-verbal pain behaviour. I have, however, some reservations about the strength of the evidence, relating to insufficient characterization of the underlying processes involved.

The study relies on a robust machine-learning approach, able to capitalise on the multivariate nature of the fMRI data, an approach pioneered in the field of pain by one of the authors (Dr. Tor Wager). This paper extends Wager's and other colleagues' work attempting to identify specific combinations of brain structures subserving different aspects of the pain experience while examining the extent of similarity/dissimilarity with the other signatures. In doing so, the study provides further methodological insight into fine-grained network characterization that may inspire future work beyond this specific field.

The main weakness concerns the lack of a targeted experimental design aimed to dissect the shared variance explained by activations both specific to facial expressions and to pain reports. In particular, I believe that two elements would have significantly increased the robustness of the findings:

  1. Control conditions for both the facial expressions and the sensory input. An efficient signature should not be predictive of neutral and emotional facial expressions (e.g., disgust) other than pain expressions, as well as it should not be predictive of sensations originating from innocuous warm stimulation or other unpleasant but non-painful stimulation.
  2. Graded intensity of the sensory stimulation: different intensities of the thermal stimulation would have caused a graded facial expression (from neutral to pain) and graded verbal reports (from no pain to strong pain), thus offering a sensitive characterisation of the signal associated with this condition (and the warm control condition).
    However, these conditions are missing from the current design, and therefore we cannot make a strong conclusion about the generalisability of the signature (regardless of whether it can predict better than other signatures - which may/may not suffer from similar or other methodological issues - another potential interesting scientific question!). The authors seem to work on the assumption that the trials where warm stimulation was delivered are of no use. I beg to disagree. As per my previous comment, warm trials (and associated neutral expressions) could be incorporated into the statistical model to increase the classification sensitivity and precision of the FEPS decoding.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

The objective of this study was to further our understanding of the brain mechanisms associated with facial expressions of pain. To achieve this, participants' facial expressions and brain activity were recorded while they received noxious heat stimulation. The authors then used a decoding approach to predict facial expressions from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data. They found a distinctive brain signature for pain facial expressions. This signature had minimal overlap with brain signatures reflecting other components of pain phenomenology, such as signatures reflecting subjective pain intensity or negative effects.

The manuscript is clearly written. The authors used a rigorous approach involving multivariate brain decoding to predict the occurrence and intensity of pain facial expressions during noxious heat stimulation. The analyses seem solid and well-conducted. I think that this is an important study of fundamental and clinical relevance.

Despite those major strengths, I felt that the authors did not suffciently explain their own interpretation of the significance of the findings. What does it mean, according to them, that the brain signature associated with facial expressions of pain shows a minimal overlap with other pain-related brain signatures?

A few questions also arose during my reading.

Question 1: Is the FEPS really specific to pain expressions? Is it possible that the signature includes a facial expression signal that would be shared with facial expressions of other emotions, especially since it involves socio-affective regulation processes? Perhaps this question should be discussed as a limit of the study?

Question 2: All AUs are combined together in a composite score for the regression. Given that the authors have other work showing that different AUs may be associated with different components of pain (affective vs. sensory), is it possible that combining all AUs together has decreased the correlation with other pain signatures? Or that the FEPS actually reflects multiple independent signatures?

Question 3: Is facial expressivity constant throughout the experiment? Is it possible that the expressivity changes between the beginning and the end of the experiment? For instance, if there is a habituation, or if the participant is less surprised by the pain, or in contrast if they get tired by the end of the experiment and do not inhibit their expression as much as they did at the beginning. If facial expressivity changes, this could perhaps affect the correlation with the pain ratings and/or with the brain signatures; perhaps time (trial number) could be added as one of the variables in the model to address this question.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

In this manuscript, Picard et al. propose a Facial Expression Pain Signature (FEPS) as a distinctive marker of pain processing in the brain. Specifically, they attempt to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to predict facial expressions associated with painful heat stimulation.

The main strengths of the manuscript are that it is built on an extensive foundation of work from the research group, and that experience can be observed in the analysis of fMRI data and the development of the machine learning model. Additionally, it provides a comparative account of the similarities of the FEPS with other proposed pain signatures. The main weaknesses of the manuscript are the absence of a proper control condition to assess the specificity of the facial pain expressions, a few relevant omissions in the methodology regarding the original analysis of the data and its purpose, and a biased interpretation of the results.

I believe that the authors partially succeed in their aims, as described in the introduction, which are to assess the association between pain facial expression and existing pain-relevant brain signatures, and to develop a predictive brain activation model of the facial responses to painful thermal stimulation. However, I believe that there is a clear difference between those aims and the claim of the title, and that the interpretation of the results needs to be more rigorous.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation