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Previous studies have demonstrated the potential of machine learning (ML) in classifying physical pain from non-pain states using electroencephalographic (EEG) data. However, the application of ML to EEG data to categorise the observation of pain versus non-pain images of human facial expressions or scenes depicting pain being inflicted has not been explored. The present study aimed to address this by training Random Forest (RF) models on cortical event-related potentials (ERPs) recorded while participants passively viewed faces displaying either pain or neutral expressions, as well as action scenes depicting pain or matched non-pain (neutral) scenarios. Ninety-one participants were recruited across three samples, which included a model development group (n = 40) and a cross-subject validation group (n = 51). Additionally, 25 participants from the model development group completed a second experimental session, providing a within-subject temporal validation sample. The analysis of ERPs revealed an enhanced N170 component in response to faces compared to action scenes. Moreover, an increased late positive potential (LPP) was observed during the viewing of pain scenes compared to neutral scenes. Additionally, an enhanced P3 response was found when participants viewed faces displaying pain expressions compared to neutral expressions. Subsequently, three RF models were developed to classify images into faces and scenes, neutral and pain scenes, and neutral and pain expressions. The RF model achieved classification accuracies of 75%, 64%, and 69% for cross-validation, cross-subject, and within-subject classifications, respectively, along with reasonably calibrated predictions for the classification of face versus scene images. However, the RF model was unable to classify pain versus neutral stimuli above chance levels when presented with subsequent tasks involving images from either category. These results expand upon previous findings by externally validating the use of ML in classifying ERPs related to different categories of visual images, namely faces and scenes. The results also indicate the limitations of ML in distinguishing pain and non-pain connotations using ERP responses to the passive viewing of visually similar images.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Neurosci

Publication Date





Electroencephalography, Empathy, Event-related potential, External validation, N170, Humans, Electroencephalography, Machine Learning, Pain, Random Forest