Keeping an eye on pain: investigating visual attention biases in individuals with chronic pain using eye-tracking methodology
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Attentional biases to painful stimuli are evident in individuals with chronic pain, although the directional tendency of these biases (ie, toward or away from threat-related stimuli) remains unclear. This study used eye-tracking technology, a measure of visual attention, to evaluate the attentional patterns of individuals with and without chronic pain during exposure to injury-related and neutral pictures. Individuals with (N=51) and without chronic pain (N=62) completed a dot-probe task using injury-related and neutral pictures while their eye movements were recorded. Mixed-design analysis of variance evaluated the interaction between group (chronic pain, pain-free) and picture type (injury-related, neutral). Reaction time results showed that regardless of chronic pain status, participants responded faster to trials with neutral stimuli in comparison to trials that included injury-related pictures. Eye-tracking measures showed within-group differences whereby injury-related pictures received more frequent fixations and visits, as well as longer average visit durations. Between-group differences showed that individuals with chronic pain had fewer fixations and shorter average visit durations for all stimuli. An examination of how biases change over the time-course of stimulus presentation showed that during the late phase of attention, individuals with chronic pain had longer average gaze durations on injury pictures relative to pain-free individuals. The results show the advantage of incorporating eye-tracking methodology when examining attentional biases, and suggest future avenues of research.
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