In a world-first, Australian researchers have found that people with chronic pain experience physical alterations in their brain that likely leads to negative changes in their personality.
The study by Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin from Neuroscience Research Australia and University of New South Wales, discovered that people with chronic pain have smaller amounts of the brain’s key chemical messenger, glutamate, in the brain region responsible for regulating thoughts and emotions.
The study shows people with chronic pain experience disruptions in the communication between brain cells. This could lead to a change in personality through a reduction of their ability to effectively process emotions.
Researchers studied participants with chronic pain and found that having lower glutamate levels within the medial prefrontal cortex, led to a person experiencing negative personality changes.
There are currently no drugs that directly target the decreased glutamate levels in the medial prefrontal cortex experienced by people with chronic pain. Associate Professor Gustin will now test whether increasing glutamate levels will reverse negative personality changes caused by pain.
“People with chronic pain are often unfairly labelled as having certain personality traits that make them more likely to experience pain,” said Associate Professor Gustin.
“But through this new discovery, we now know that the brains of people with chronic pain have changed physically. This change, rather than an inherent personality trait, may cause them to develop a negative temperament, which could be impacting on all aspects of their life,” she said.
Painaustralia CEO Carol Bennett spoke to several media outlets on the research, and said the findings were potentially ground-breaking especially if they lead to new treatments.
"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."
The discovery of low glutamate levels was made through cutting-edge brain imaging in the medial prefrontal cortex of people with chronic pain. The study’s findings have today been published in the research journal Frontiers.