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  • Sophie Scott and Mary Lloyd

Chronic pain can change the way your brain processes emotion, scientists find

Daune Coogan going for CT scan

Anyone who has lived with chronic pain will be well aware of the emotional pain that can come with it. But new research from Australian scientists shows there is a physical reason for it: chronic pain can physically change the brain. Researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia compared the brain scans of 19 patients with conditions such as nerve pain and jaw disorders against the scans of 19 healthy people. Sylvia Gustin found patients with chronic pain had lower levels of a substance called glutamate, a key chemical messenger between brain cells that helps regulate emotion. "[It] means their brain cells can no longer communicate properly and therefore their ability to process positive emotion is jeopardised," Associate Professor Gustin said. As a result, people in chronic pain can have personality changes where they are "prone to feeling tired, unmotivated and constantly worrying on a daily basis", she said. Researchers found the greater the decrease in glutamate, the more chronic pain sufferers showed fearfulness, pessimism, fatigue, and sensitivity to criticism. While researchers say the scenario needs to be replicated in a larger trial, the findings remain a great source of comfort for Daune Coogan. Ms Coogan lives with a painful condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication of having shingles. "I have pain in the left side of my face, down through my head and lower left side, and I have facial disfigurement as well," she said. She has found dealing with pain very difficult emotionally. "You come to the realisation that pain is going to be your constant companion," she said. "I got up every day and cried for many days until I finally worked out that this pain was going to be there." Ms Coogan said learning how pain and mood were connected was an enormous help. "When we did a series of MRIs, I was able to understand better why I was so distressed," she said. "I was able to get a better picture by looking at my brain patterns to understand that my depression and my sadness wasn't something that [just] happened. "It was the chronic pain."

Teaching the brain to feel There are no medications which target reduced levels of glutamate in the brain. But Associate Professor Gustin said Neuroscience Research Australia was developing a program which might help patients in the future. "We are developing a very exciting computer-brain interface treatment which repairs this poor communication between brain cells," she said. Researchers attach electrodes to a patient's scalp to measure brain activity, and use a computerised program to teach the brain cells communicate properly again. "This will hopefully result in a changed positive personality," she said. Pain Australia chief executive Carol Bennett said the findings were potentially groundbreaking. "We know that almost half of people with chronic pain have mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and these findings may well be an explanation," she said. "The research could help change the way we understand and respond to chronic pain."

Article from ABC News

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