The human brainstem plays a central role in connecting the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the spinal cord to one another, hosting relay nuclei for afferent and efferent signaling, and providing source nuclei for several neuromodulatory systems that impact central nervous system function. While the investigation of the brainstem with functional or structural magnetic resonance imaging has been hampered for years due to this brain structure's physiological and anatomical characteristics, the field has seen significant advances in recent years thanks to the broader adoption of ultrahigh-field (UHF) MRI scanning. In the present review, we focus on the advantages offered by UHF in the context of brainstem imaging, as well as the challenges posed by the investigation of this complex brain structure in terms of data acquisition and analysis. We also illustrate how UHF MRI can shed new light on the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology underlying different brainstem-based circuitries, such as the central autonomic network and neurotransmitter/neuromodulator systems, discuss existing and foreseeable clinical applications to better understand diseases such as chronic pain and Parkinson's disease, and explore promising future directions for further improvements in brainstem imaging using UHF MRI techniques.
BACKGROUND: A clear understanding of the neural basis of consciousness is fundamental to research in clinical and basic neuroscience disciplines and anesthesia. Recently, decreased efficiency of information integration was suggested as a core network feature of propofol-induced unconsciousness. However, it is unclear whether this finding can be generalized to dexmedetomidine, which has a different molecular target.
METHODS: Dexmedetomidine was administered as a 1-μg/kg bolus over 10 min, followed by a 0.7-μg · kg · h infusion to healthy human volunteers (age range, 18 to 36 yr; n = 15). Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired during baseline, dexmedetomidine-induced altered arousal, and recovery states. Zero-lag correlations between resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging signals extracted from 131 brain parcellations were used to construct weighted brain networks. Network efficiency, degree distribution, and node strength were computed using graph analysis. Parcellated brain regions were also mapped to known resting-state networks to study functional connectivity changes.
RESULTS: Dexmedetomidine significantly reduced the local and global efficiencies of graph theory-derived networks. Dexmedetomidine also reduced the average brain connectivity strength without impairing the degree distribution. Functional connectivity within and between all resting-state networks was modulated by dexmedetomidine.
CONCLUSIONS: Dexmedetomidine is associated with a significant drop in the capacity for efficient information transmission at both the local and global levels. These changes result from reductions in the strength of connectivity and also manifest as reduced within and between resting-state network connectivity. These findings strengthen the hypothesis that conscious processing relies on an efficient system of information transfer in the brain.
The brain networks supporting nausea not yet understood. We previously found that while visual stimulation activated primary (V1) and extrastriate visual cortices (MT+/V5, coding for visual motion), increasing nausea was associated with increasing sustained activation in several brain areas, with significant co-activation for anterior insula (aIns) and mid-cingulate (MCC) cortices. Here, we hypothesized that motion sickness also alters functional connectivity between visual motion and previously identified nausea-processing brain regions. Subjects prone to motion sickness and controls completed a motion sickness provocation task during fMRI/ECG acquisition. We studied changes in connectivity between visual processing areas activated by the stimulus (MT+/V5, V1), right aIns and MCC when comparing rest (BASELINE) to peak nausea state (NAUSEA). Compared to BASELINE, NAUSEA reduced connectivity between right and left V1 and increased connectivity between right MT+/V5 and aIns and between left MT+/V5 and MCC. Additionally, the change in MT+/V5 to insula connectivity was significantly associated with a change in sympathovagal balance, assessed by heart rate variability analysis. No state-related connectivity changes were noted for the control group. Increased connectivity between a visual motion processing region and nausea/salience brain regions may reflect increased transfer of visual/vestibular mismatch information to brain regions supporting nausea perception and autonomic processing. We conclude that vection-induced nausea increases connectivity between nausea-processing regions and those activated by the nauseogenic stimulus. This enhanced low-frequency coupling may support continual, slowly evolving nausea perception and shifts toward sympathetic dominance. Disengaging this coupling may be a target for biobehavioral interventions aimed at reducing motion sickness severity.
Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS) has been linked to episodic migraine, yet little is known about the precise brain-based mechanisms underpinning CVS, and whether these associated conditions share similar pathophysiology. We investigated the functional integrity of salience (SLN) and sensorimotor (SMN) intrinsic connectivity networks in CVS, migraine and healthy controls using brain functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. CVS, relative to both migraine and controls, showed increased SLN connectivity to middle/posterior insula, a key brain region for nausea and viscerosensory processing. In contrast, this same region showed diminished SMN connectivity in both CVS and migraine. These results highlight both unique and potentially shared pathophysiology between these conditions, and suggest a potential target for therapeutics in future studies.
OBJECTIVE(S): Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic, common pain disorder characterized by hyperalgesia. A key mechanism by which cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) fosters improvement in pain outcomes is via reductions in hyperalgesia and pain-related catastrophizing, a dysfunctional set of cognitive-emotional processes. However, the neural underpinnings of these CBT effects are unclear. Our aim was to assess CBT's effects on the brain circuitry underlying hyperalgesia in FM patients, and to explore the role of treatment-associated reduction in catastrophizing as a contributor to normalization of pain-relevant brain circuitry and clinical improvement.
METHODS: In total, 16 high-catastrophizing FM patients were enrolled in the study and randomized to 4 weeks of individual treatment with either CBT or a Fibromyalgia Education (control) condition. Resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging scans evaluated functional connectivity between key pain-processing brain regions at baseline and posttreatment. Clinical outcomes were assessed at baseline, posttreatment, and 6-month follow-up.
RESULTS: Catastrophizing correlated with increased resting state functional connectivity between S1 and anterior insula. The CBT group showed larger reductions (compared with the education group) in catastrophizing at posttreatment (P<0.05), and CBT produced significant reductions in both pain and catastrophizing at the 6-month follow-up (P<0.05). Patients in the CBT group also showed reduced resting state connectivity between S1 and anterior/medial insula at posttreatment; these reductions in resting state connectivity were associated with concurrent treatment-related reductions in catastrophizing.
DISCUSSION: The results add to the growing support for the clinically important associations between S1-insula connectivity, clinical pain, and catastrophizing, and suggest that CBT may, in part via reductions in catastrophizing, help to normalize pain-related brain responses in FM.
Acupuncture can have instant and sustained effects, however, its mechanisms of action are still unclear. Here, we investigated the sustained effect of acupuncture by evaluating centrality changes in resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging after manually stimulating the acupuncture point ST36 at the lower leg or two control point locations (CP1 same dermatome, CP2 different dermatome). Data from a previously published experiment evaluating instant BOLD effects and S2-seed-based resting state connectivity was re-analyzed using eigenvector centrality mapping and degree centrality mapping. These data-driven methods might add new insights into sustained acupuncture effects on both global and local inter-region connectivity (centrality) by evaluating the summary of connections of every voxel. We found higher centrality in parahippocampal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus after ST36 stimulation in comparison to the two control points. These regions are positively correlated to major hubs of the default mode network, which might be the primary network affected by chronic pain. The stronger integration of both regions within the whole-brain connectome after stimulation of ST36 might be a potential contributor to pain modulation by acupuncture. These findings highlight centrality mapping as a valuable analysis for future imaging studies investigating clinically relevant outcomes associated with physiological response to acupuncture stimulation.
CLINICAL TRIAL REGISTRATION: NCT01079689, ClinicalTrials.gov.
OBJECTIVE: Pregabalin (PGB) is an α2 δ calcium-channel subunit ligand that has previously been shown to reduce chronic pain in multiple conditions. Preclinical studies indicate that PGB may down-regulate brain glutamate release while also inhibiting astrocyte induction of glutamatergic synapse formation, and recent clinical findings support the notion that PGB modulates glutamatergic activity and functional brain connectivity in order to produce analgesia. The present study was undertaken to examine concurrent changes in brain gray matter volume (GMV) or evoked-pain connectivity in humans receiving PGB.
METHODS: Sixteen female fibromyalgia patients participated in a randomized double-blind 2-period crossover study of PGB versus placebo. Before and after each period, patients underwent high-resolution structural and evoked pressure-pain functional brain imaging. GMV was analyzed using voxel-based morphometry, and functional connectivity during evoked pressure-pain was assessed.
RESULTS: PGB administration significantly reduced GMV within the posterior insula bilaterally, whereas there were no significant changes in insular GMV following placebo treatment. GMV reductions in the medial frontal gyrus were also observed when comparing PGB versus placebo treatment, and were associated with reduced clinical pain. These reductions in insular GMV were associated with concomitant reductions in connectivity to the default mode network, which was also associated with reduced clinical pain.
CONCLUSION: Short-term PGB treatment altered brain structure and evoked-pain connectivity, and these decreases were associated with reduced clinical pain. We speculate that these fairly rapid changes in GMV may be related to brain neuroplasticity. It is unknown whether these effects are generalizable to other chronic pain states.
BACKGROUND: Impaired sensory processing in migraine can reflect diminished habituation, increased activation, or even increased gain or amplification of activity from the primary synapse in the brainstem to higher cortical/subcortical brain regions.
METHODS: We scanned 16 episodic migraine (interictal) and 16 healthy controls (cross-sectional study), and evaluated brain response to innocuous air-puff stimulation over the right forehead in the ophthalmic nerve (V1) trigeminal territory. We further evaluated habituation, and cortical/subcortical amplification relative to spinal trigeminal nucleus (Sp5) activation.
RESULTS: Migraine subjects showed greater amplification from Sp5 to the posterior insula and hypothalamus. In addition, while controls showed habituation to repetitive sensory stimulation in all activated cortical regions (e.g. the bilateral posterior insula and secondary somatosensory cortices), for migraine subjects, habituation was not found in the posterior insula. Moreover, in migraine, the habituation slope was correlated with the amplification ratio in the posterior insula and secondary somatosensory cortex, i.e. greater amplification was associated with reduced habituation in these regions.
CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that in episodic migraine, amplified information processing from spinal trigeminal relay nuclei is linked to an impaired habituation response. This phenomenon was localized in the posterior insula, highlighting the important role of this structure in mechanisms supporting altered sensory processing in episodic migraine.
Central autonomic control nuclei in the brainstem have been difficult to evaluate non-invasively in humans. We applied ultrahigh-field (7 T) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and the improved spatial resolution it affords (1.2 mm isotropic), to evaluate putative brainstem nuclei that control and/or sense pain-evoked cardiovagal modulation (high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) instantaneously estimated through a point-process approach). The time-variant HF-HRV signal was used to guide the general linear model analysis of neuroimaging data. Sustained (6 min) pain stimulation reduced cardiovagal modulation, with the most prominent reduction evident in the first 2 min. Brainstem nuclei associated with pain-evoked HF-HRV reduction were previously implicated in both autonomic regulation and pain processing. Specifically, clusters consistent with the rostral ventromedial medulla, ventral nucleus reticularis (Rt)/nucleus ambiguus (NAmb) and pontine nuclei (Pn) were found when contrasting sustained pain versus rest. Analysis of the initial 2-min period identified Rt/NAmb and Pn, in addition to clusters consistent with the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus/nucleus of the solitary tract and locus coeruleus. Combining high spatial resolution fMRI and high temporal resolution HF-HRV allowed for a non-invasive characterization of brainstem nuclei, suggesting that nociceptive afference induces pain-processing brainstem nuclei to function in concert with known premotor autonomic nuclei in order to affect the cardiovagal response to pain.
Paresthesia-dominant and pain-dominant subgroups have been noted in carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), a peripheral neuropathic disorder characterized by altered primary somatosensory/motor (S1/M1) physiology. We aimed to investigate whether brain morphometry dissociates these subgroups. Subjects with CTS were evaluated with nerve conduction studies, whereas symptom severity ratings were used to allocate subjects into paresthesia-dominant (CTS-paresthesia), pain-dominant (CTS-pain), and pain/paresthesia nondominant (not included in further analysis) subgroups. Structural brain magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired at 3T using a multiecho MPRAGE T1-weighted pulse sequence, and gray matter cortical thickness was calculated across the entire brain using validated, automated methods. CTS-paresthesia subjects demonstrated reduced median sensory nerve conduction velocity (P = 0.05) compared with CTS-pain subjects. In addition, cortical thickness in precentral and postcentral gyri (S1/M1 hand area) contralateral to the more affected hand was significantly reduced in CTS-paresthesia subgroup compared with CTS-pain subgroup. Moreover, in CTS-paresthesia subjects, precentral cortical thickness was negatively correlated with paresthesia severity (r(34) = -0.40, P = 0.016) and positively correlated with median nerve sensory velocity (r(36) = 0.51, P = 0.001), but not with pain severity. Conversely, in CTS-pain subjects, contralesional S1 (r(9) = 0.62, P = 0.042) and M1 (r(9) = 0.61, P = 0.046) cortical thickness were correlated with pain severity, but not median nerve velocity or paresthesia severity. This double dissociation in somatotopically specific S1/M1 areas suggests a neuroanatomical substrate for symptom-based CTS subgroups. Such fine-grained subgrouping of CTS may lead to improved personalized therapeutic approaches, based on superior characterization of the linkage between peripheral and central neuroplasticity.
Research into acupuncture has had ripple effects beyond the field of acupuncture. This paper identifies five exemplars to illustrate that there is tangible evidence of the way insights gleaned from acupuncture research have informed biomedical research, practice, or policy. The first exemplar documents how early research into acupuncture analgesia has expanded into neuroimaging research, broadening physiologic understanding and treatment of chronic pain. The second describes how the acupuncture needle has become a tool to enhance biomedical knowledge of connective tissue. The third exemplar, which illustrates use of a modified acupuncture needle as a sham device, focuses on emergent understanding of placebo effects and, in turn, on insights into therapeutic encounters in treatments unrelated to acupuncture. The fourth exemplar documents that two medical devices now in widespread use were inspired by acupuncture: transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulators for pain control and antinausea wrist bands. The final exemplar describes how pragmatic clinical trial designs applied in acupuncture research have informed current general interest in comparative effectiveness research. In conclusion, these exemplars of unanticipated outcomes of acupuncture research comprise an additional rationale for continued support of basic and clinical research evaluating acupuncture and other under-researched therapies.
UNLABELLED: In contrast to women with relatively asymptomatic endometriosis, women with endometriosis-associated chronic pelvic pain (CPP) exhibit nonpelvic hyperalgesia and decreased gray matter volume in key neural pain processing regions. Although these findings suggest central pain amplification in endometriosis-associated CPP, the underlying changes in brain chemistry and function associated with central pain amplification remain unknown. We performed proton spectroscopy and seed-based resting functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging to determine whether women with endometriosis display differences in insula excitatory neurotransmitter concentrations or intrinsic brain connectivity to other pain-related brain regions. Relative to age-matched pain-free controls, women with endometriosis-associated CPP displayed increased levels of combined glutamine-glutamate (Glx) within the anterior insula and greater anterior insula connectivity to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Increased connectivity between these regions was positively correlated with anterior insula Glx concentrations (r = .87), as well as clinical anxiety (r = .61, P = .02), depression (r = .60, P = .03), and pain intensity (r = .55, P = .05). There were no significant differences in insula metabolite levels or resting-state connectivity in endometriosis patients without CPP versus controls. We conclude that enhanced anterior insula glutamatergic neurotransmission and connectivity with the mPFC, key regions of the salience and default mode networks, may play a role in the pathophysiology of CPP independent of the presence of endometriosis.
PERSPECTIVE: Similar to other chronic pain conditions, endometriosis-associated pelvic pain is associated with altered brain chemistry and function in pain processing regions. These findings support central pain amplification as a mechanism of chronic pelvic pain, and clinicians should consider the use of adjunctive therapies that target central pain dysfunction in these women.
The skin conductance (SC) signal is one of the most important non-invasive indirect measures of autonomic outflow. Several mathematical models have been proposed in the literature to characterize specific SC features. In this work, we present a method for the estimation of central control of sudomotor nerve impulse (SMI) function using SC. The method is based on a differential formulation decomposed into two first order differential equations. We validate our estimation framework by applying it on an experimental protocol where eleven motion sickness-prone subjects were exposed to a nauseogenic visual stimulus while SC and fMRI signals were recorded. Our results show an expected significant increase in the mean amplitude of SMI peaks during the highest reported nausea, as well as a decreasing trend during recovery, which was not evident for skin conductance level. Importantly, SMI/fMRI analysis found a negative association between SMI and fMRI signal in orbitofrontal, dorsolateral prefrontal, and posterior insula cortices, consistent with previous studies correlating brain fMRI and microneurographic signals.
BACKGROUND: Although cervical vagus nerve stimulation is effective for reducing infarct volume in rats, it is not feasible for acute human stroke as it requires surgical incision of the neck. We hypothesized that stimulation of the dermatome in the external ear innervated by the vagus nerve (auricular vagus nerve stimulation; aVNS) reduces infarct volume after transient focal ischemia in rats.
METHODS: Animals were randomized to active aVNS or sham stimulation. For aVNS, electrical stimulation of the left cavum concha (1 h duration) using percutaneous needles was initiated 30 min after induction of ischemia. Behavioral and tissue outcome were measured 24 h after induction of ischemia. In a separate experimental dataset, c-Fos immunohistochemistry was performed to identify the brain regions activated after the stimulation.
RESULTS: Stimulation of the left cavum concha resulted in bilateral c-Fos staining in the nuclei tractus solitarii and the loci coerulei in all animals. There was no c-Fos staining in any part of the brainstem in sham control animals. The mean infarct volume (SD) as calculated by indirect method was 44.20 ± 7.58% in controls and 31.65 ± 9.67% in treated animals (P < 0.0001). The effect of aVNS on tissue outcome was associated with better neurological scores at 24 h after ischemia (P < 0.0001).
CONCLUSIONS: Electric stimulation of the vagus nerve dermatome in the external ear activates brainstem afferent vagal nuclei and reduces infarct volume in rats. This finding has potential to facilitate the development of treatments that leverage the brain's endogenous neuroprotective pathways at the setting of acute ischemic stroke.
Although substantial evidence has established that microglia and astrocytes play a key role in the establishment and maintenance of persistent pain in animal models, the role of glial cells in human pain disorders remains unknown. Here, using the novel technology of integrated positron emission tomography-magnetic resonance imaging and the recently developed radioligand (11)C-PBR28, we show increased brain levels of the translocator protein (TSPO), a marker of glial activation, in patients with chronic low back pain. As the Ala147Thr polymorphism in the TSPO gene affects binding affinity for (11)C-PBR28, nine patient-control pairs were identified from a larger sample of subjects screened and genotyped, and compared in a matched-pairs design, in which each patient was matched to a TSPO polymorphism-, age- and sex-matched control subject (seven Ala/Ala and two Ala/Thr, five males and four females in each group; median age difference: 1 year; age range: 29-63 for patients and 28-65 for controls). Standardized uptake values normalized to whole brain were significantly higher in patients than controls in multiple brain regions, including thalamus and the putative somatosensory representations of the lumbar spine and leg. The thalamic levels of TSPO were negatively correlated with clinical pain and circulating levels of the proinflammatory citokine interleukin-6, suggesting that TSPO expression exerts pain-protective/anti-inflammatory effects in humans, as predicted by animal studies. Given the putative role of activated glia in the establishment and or maintenance of persistent pain, the present findings offer clinical implications that may serve to guide future studies of the pathophysiology and management of a variety of persistent pain conditions.
Chronic itch, a highly debilitating condition, has received relatively little attention in the neuroimaging literature. Recent studies suggest that brain regions supporting itch in chronic itch patients encompass sensorimotor and salience networks, and corticostriatal circuits involved in motor preparation for scratching. However, how these different brain areas interact with one another in the context of itch is still unknown. We acquired BOLD fMRI scans in 14 atopic dermatitis patients to investigate resting-state functional connectivity before and after allergen-induced itch exacerbated the clinical itch perception in these patients. A seed-based analysis revealed decreased functional connectivity from baseline resting state to the evoked-itch state between several itch-related brain regions, particularly the insular and cingulate cortices and basal ganglia, where decreased connectivity was significantly correlated with increased levels of perceived itch. In contrast, evoked itch increased connectivity between key nodes of the frontoparietal control network (superior parietal lobule and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), where higher increase in connectivity was correlated with a lesser increase in perceived itch, suggesting that greater interaction between nodes of this executive attention network serves to limit itch sensation via enhanced top-down regulation. Overall, our results provide the first evidence of itch-dependent changes in functional connectivity across multiple brain regions.
OBJECTIVE: Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic functional pain syndrome characterized by widespread pain, significant pain catastrophizing, sympathovagal dysfunction, and amplified temporal summation for evoked pain. While several studies have demonstrated altered resting brain connectivity in FM, studies have not specifically probed the somatosensory system and its role in both somatic and nonsomatic FM symptoms. Our objective was to evaluate resting primary somatosensory cortex (S1) connectivity and to explore how sustained, evoked deep tissue pain modulates this connectivity. METHODS: We acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging and electrocardiography data on FM patients and healthy controls during rest (the rest phase) and during sustained mechanical pressure-induced pain over the lower leg (the pain phase). Functional connectivity associated with different S1 subregions was calculated, while S1(leg) connectivity (representation of the leg in the primary somatosensory cortex) was contrasted between the rest phase and the pain phase and was correlated with clinically relevant measures in FM. RESULTS: During the rest phase, FM patients showed decreased connectivity between multiple ipsilateral and cross-hemispheric S1 subregions, which was correlated with clinical pain severity. Compared to the rest phase, the pain phase produced increased S1(leg) connectivity to the bilateral anterior insula in FM patients, but not in healthy controls. Moreover, in FM patients, sustained pain-altered S1(leg) connectivity to the anterior insula was correlated with clinical/behavioral pain measures and autonomic responses. CONCLUSION: Our study demonstrates that both somatic and nonsomatic dysfunction in FM, including clinical pain, pain catastrophizing, autonomic dysfunction, and amplified temporal summation, are closely linked with the degree to which evoked deep tissue pain alters S1 connectivity to salience/affective pain-processing regions. Additionally, diminished connectivity between S1 subregions during the rest phase in FM may result from ongoing widespread clinical pain.
In the field of acupuncture research there is an implicit yet unexplored assumption that the evidence on manual and electrical stimulation techniques, derived from basic science studies, clinical trials, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses, is generally interchangeable. Such interchangeability would justify a bidirectional approach to acupuncture research, where basic science studies and clinical trials each inform the other. This article examines the validity of this fundamental assumption by critically reviewing the literature and comparing manual to electrical acupuncture in basic science studies, clinical trials, and meta-analyses. The evidence from this study does not support the assumption that these techniques are interchangeable. This article also identifies endemic methodologic limitations that have impaired progress in the field. For example, basic science studies have not matched the frequency and duration of manual needle stimulation to the frequency and duration of electrical stimulation. Further, most clinical trials purporting to compare the two types of stimulation have instead tested electroacupuncture as an adjunct to manual acupuncture. The current findings reveal fundamental gaps in the understanding of the mechanisms and relative effectiveness of manual versus electrical acupuncture. Finally, future research directions are suggested to better differentiate electrical from manual simulation, and implications for clinical practice are discussed.
Acupuncture can be regarded as a complex somatosensory stimulation. Here, we evaluate whether the point locations chosen for a somatosensory stimulation with acupuncture needles differently change the brain activity in healthy volunteers. We used EEG, event-related fMRI, and resting-state functional connectivity fMRI to assess neural responses to standardized needle stimulation of the acupuncture point ST36 (lower leg) and two control point locations (CP1 same dermatome, CP2 different dermatome). Cerebral responses were expected to differ for stimulation in two different dermatomes (CP2 different from ST36 and CP1), or stimulation at the acupuncture point vs. the control points. For EEG, mu rhythm power increased for ST36 compared to CP1 or CP2, but not when comparing the two control points. The fMRI analysis found more pronounced insula and S2 (secondary somatosensory cortex) activation, as well as precuneus deactivation during ST36 stimulation. The S2 seed-based functional connectivity analysis revealed increased connectivity to right precuneus for both comparisons, ST36 vs. CP1 and ST36 vs. CP2, however in different regions. Our results suggest that stimulation at acupuncture points may modulate somatosensory and saliency processing regions more readily than stimulation at non-acupuncture point locations. Also, our findings suggest potential modulation of pain perception due to acupuncture stimulation.