New data from researchers who examined brain scans of chronic pain sufferers shows that the structure of the brain may predict whether a person will suffer from chronic low back pain. The results of the study, published in the journal Pain, support the idea that the brain may play a role in chronic pain, which can lead to a change in the way chronic pain is treated. Vania Apkarian, PhD, senior author of the study, explains, “We may have found an anatomical marker for chronic pain in the brain.”
Apkarian and colleagues scanned the brains of 46 people with low back pain for about 3 months before coming to the hospital but who had not had any pain for at least 1 year prior. The research team scanned the subjects’ brains and evaluated their pain with physician examinations and questionnaires four times during a yearlong period. The scanning technique used by the researchers is called diffusor tensor imaging (DTI), which measures the structure of white matter or axons.
Approximately half of the subjects recovered during the year, while the other half had pain throughout, which was categorized as persistent. Researchers found a consistent difference in white matter between the subjects who recovered from the chronic pain and the subjects who experienced pain throughout the year. Apkarian explains, “Our results suggest that the structure of a person’s brain may predispose one to chronic pain.”
The research team also found that white matter of subjects who had persistent pain looked similar to a third group of subjects who suffer from chronic pain, though the white matter of subjects who recovered looked similar to healthy control subjects. Apkarian adds, “Our results support the notion that certain brain networks are involved with chronic pain. Understanding these networks will help us diagnose chronic pain better and develop more precise treatments.”
The research study was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Linda Porter, PhD, pain policy advisor at the NINDS, states, “Pain is becoming an enormous burden on the public. This study is a good example of the kind of innovative research we hope will reduce chronic pain which affects a huge portion of the population.”
Photo Appears Courtesy of Apkarian Lab, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine