By medical reporter Sophie Scott and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Mary Lloyd
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.
Researchers found people with chronic pain had lower levels of glutamate, which helps regulate emotion
There are no medications that target reduced levels of glutamate in the brain. In Australia, studies have been conducted and scientists are developing a computer program to teach brain cells to 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.”