The brainstem is known to be an important brain area for nociception and pain processing, and both relaying and coordinating signaling between the cerebrum, cerebellum, and spinal cord. Although preclinical models of pain have characterized the many roles that brainstem nuclei play in nociceptive processing, the degree to which these circuitries extend to humans is not as well known. Unfortunately, the brainstem is also a very challenging region to evaluate in humans with neuroimaging. The challenges for human brainstem imaging arise from the location of this elongated brain structure, proximity to cardiorespiratory noise sources, and the size of its constituent nuclei. These challenges can require dedicated approaches to brainstem imaging, which should be adopted when study hypotheses are focused on brainstem processing of nociception or modulation of pain perception. In fact, our review will highlight many pain neuroimaging studies that have reported some brainstem involvement in nociceptive processing and chronic pain pathology. However, we note that with recent advances in neuroimaging leading to improved spatial and temporal resolution, more studies are needed that take advantage of data collection and analysis methods focused on the challenges of brainstem neuroimaging.
Peripheral measures of autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity at rest have been extensively employed as putative biomarkers of autonomic cardiac control. However, a comprehensive characterization of the brain-based central autonomic network (CAN) sustaining cardiovascular oscillations at rest is missing, limiting the interpretability of these ANS measures as biomarkers of cardiac control. We evaluated combined cardiac and fMRI data from 34 healthy subjects from the Human Connectome Project to detect brain areas functionally linked to cardiovagal modulation at rest. Specifically, we combined voxel-wise fMRI analysis with instantaneous heartbeat and spectral estimates obtained from inhomogeneous linear point-process models. We found exclusively negative associations between cardiac parasympathetic activity at rest and a widespread network including bilateral anterior insulae, right dorsal middle and left posterior insula, right parietal operculum, bilateral medial dorsal and ventrolateral posterior thalamic nuclei, anterior and posterior mid-cingulate cortex, medial frontal gyrus/pre-supplementary motor area. Conversely, we found only positive associations between instantaneous heart rate and brain activity in areas including frontopolar cortex, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, anterior, middle and posterior cingulate cortices, superior frontal gyrus, and precuneus. Taken together, our data suggests a much wider involvement of diverse brain areas in the CAN at rest than previously thought, which could reflect a differential (both spatially and directionally) CAN activation according to the underlying task. Our insight into CAN activity at rest also allows the investigation of its impairment in clinical populations in which task-based fMRI is difficult to obtain (e.g., comatose patients or infants).
While several studies have found that chronic pain is characterized by increased cross-network connectivitybetween salience, sensorimotor, and default mode (DMN) networks, a large sample-size investigation allowing a more reliable evaluation of somatotopic specificity and subgroup analyses with linkage to clinical pain intensity has been lacking. We enrolled healthy adults and a large cohort of patients (N=181) suffering from chronic low back pain (cLBP). To specifically link brain connectivity with clinical pain intensity, patients were scanned at baseline and after performing physical maneuvers that exacerbated pain. Compared to healthy adults, cLBP patients demonstrated increased connectivity between the functionally-localized back representation in primary somatosensory cortex (S1back) and both salience and DMN networks. Pain exacerbation maneuvers increased S1back connectivity to salience network regions, but decreased connectivity to DMN, with greater pain intensity increase associated with greater shifts in these connectivity patterns. Furthermore, only in cLBP patients reporting high pain catastrophizing, DMN connectivity was increased to a cardinal node of the salience network, anterior insula cortex, which was correlated with increased post-maneuver pain in this cLBP subgroup. Hence, increased information transfer between salience processing regions, particularly anterior insula, and DMN may be strongly influenced by pain catastrophizing. Increased information transfer between salience network and S1 likely plays an important role in shifting nociceptive afference away from self-referential processing, re-allocating attentional focus and affective coding of nociceptive afference from specific body areas. These results demonstrate S1 somatotopic specificity for cross-network connectivity in encoding clinical back pain, and moderating influence of catastrophizing for DMN/insula connectivity.
Background Brainstem-focused mechanisms supporting transcutaneous auricular VNS (taVNS) effects are not well understood, particularly in humans. We employed ultrahigh field (7T) fMRI and evaluated the influence of respiratory phase for optimal targeting, applying our respiratory-gated auricular vagal afferent nerve stimulation (RAVANS) technique. Hypothesis We proposed that targeting of nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS) and cardiovagal modulation in response to taVNS stimuli would be enhanced when stimulation is delivered during a more receptive state, i.e. exhalation. Methods Brainstem fMRI response to auricular taVNS (cymba conchae) was assessed for stimulation delivered during exhalation (eRAVANS) or inhalation (iRAVANS), while exhalation-gated stimulation over the greater auricular nerve (GANctrl, i.e. earlobe) was included as control. Furthermore, we evaluated cardiovagal response to stimulation by calculating instantaneous HF-HRV from cardiac data recorded during fMRI. Results Our findings demonstrated that eRAVANS evoked fMRI signal increase in ipsilateral pontomedullary junction in a cluster including purported NTS. Brainstem response to GANctrl localized a partially-overlapping cluster, more ventrolateral, consistent with spinal trigeminal nucleus. A region-of-interest analysis also found eRAVANS activation in monoaminergic source nuclei including locus coeruleus (LC, noradrenergic) and both dorsal and median raphe (serotonergic) nuclei. Response to eRAVANS was significantly greater than iRAVANS for all nuclei, and greater than GANctrl in LC and raphe nuclei. Furthermore, eRAVANS, but not iRAVANS, enhanced cardiovagal modulation, confirming enhanced eRAVANS response on both central and peripheral neurophysiological levels. Conclusion 7T fMRI localized brainstem response to taVNS, linked such response with autonomic outflow, and demonstrated that taVNS applied during exhalation enhanced NTS targeting.
Background: Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain state that includes widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, psychiatric symptoms, cognitive and sleep disturbances, and multiple somatic symptoms. Current therapies are often insufficient or come with significant risks, and while there is an increasing demand for non-pharmacologic and especially non-opioid pain management such as that offered through complementary and alternative medicine therapies, there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend these therapies. Percutaneous electrical neural stimulation (PENS) is an evidence-based treatment option for pain conditions that involves electrical current stimulation through needles inserted into the skin. Percutaneous electrical neural field stimulation (PENFS) of the auricle is similar to PENS, but instead of targeting a single neurovascular bundle, PENFS stimulates the entire ear, covering all auricular branches of the cranial nerves, including the vagus nerve. The neural mechanisms of PENFS for fibromyalgia symptom relief are unknown. Objective: We hypothesize that PENFS treatment will decrease functional brain connectivity between the default mode network (DMN) and right posterior insula in fibromyalgia patients. We expect that the decrease in functional connectivity between the DMN and insula will correlate with patient-reported analgesic improvements as indicated by the Defense and Veterans Pain Rating Scale (DVPRS) and will be anti-correlated with patient-reported analgesic medication consumption. Exploratory analyses will be performed for further hypothesis generation. Methods: A total of 20 adults from the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center diagnosed with fibromyalgia will be randomized into 2 groups: 10 subjects to a control (standard therapy) group and 10 subjects to a PENFS treatment group. The pragmatic, standard therapy group will include pharmacologic treatments such as anticonvulsants, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, topical agents and physical therapy individualized to patient comorbidities and preferences, prescribed by a pain management practitioner. The PENFS group will include the above therapies in addition to the PENFS treatments. The PENFS subject group will have the Neuro-Stim System placed on the ear for 5 days then removed and replaced once per week for 4 weeks. The primary outcome will be resting functional magnetic resonance imaging connectivity between DMN and insula, which will also be correlated with pain relief and functional improvements. This connectivity will be analyzed utilizing functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) and will be compared with patient-reported analgesic improvements as indicated by the DVPRS and patient-reported analgesic medication consumption. Pain and function will be further evaluated using Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System measures and measures describing a person's functional status from Activity and Participation section of the International Classification of Functioning Disability and Health. Results: This trial has been funded by the Veterans Health Administration Program Office. This study attained approval by the Emory University/Veterans Affairs (VA) institutional review board and VA Research & Development committee. Institutional review board expedited approval was granted on 2/7/17 (IRB00092224). The study start date is 6/1/17 and estimated completion date is 5/31/20. The recruitment started in June 2017. Conclusions: This is a feasibility study that is meant to demonstrate the practicality of using fcMRI to study the neural correlates of PENFS outcomes and provide information regarding power calculations in order to design and execute a larger randomized controlled clinical trial to determine the efficacy of PENFS for improving pain and function. Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT03008837; https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03008837 (Archived by WebCite at http://www.webcitation.org/6wrY3NmaQ).
Expectation can significantly modulate pain and treatment effects. This study aims to investigate if boosting patients' expectancy can enhance the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (KOA), and its underlying brain mechanism.
Seventy-four KOA patients were recruited and randomized to three groups: boosted acupuncture (with a manipulation to enhance expectation), standard acupuncture, or treatment as usual (TAU). Each patient underwent six treatments before being debriefed, and four additional treatments after being debriefed. The fMRI scans were applied during the first and sixth treatment sessions.
We found significantly decreased knee pain in the boosted acupuncture group compared to the standard acupuncture or TAU groups after both six and ten treatments. Resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) analyses using the nucleus accumbens (NAc) as the seed showed rsFC increases between the NAc and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC)/rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the boosted group as compared to the standard acupuncture group after multiple treatments. Expectancy scores after the first treatment were significantly associated with increased NAc-rACC/MPFC rsFC and decreased knee pain following treatment.
Our study provides a novel method and mechanism for boosting the treatment of pain in patients with KOA. Our findings may shed light on enhancing outcomes of pharmacological and integrative medicines in clinical settings.
The objective of this study was to examine the association between facets of trait mindfulness, pain catastrophizing, and pain severity in a sample of patients with fibromyalgia. Patients with fibromyalgia completed validated baseline and diary assessments of clinical pain, mindfulness, and pain catastrophizing. Multilevel modeling analyses indicated that the daily association between catastrophizing and pain intensity was moderated by certain mindfulness facets. Our findings suggest that various aspects of mindfulness may interact differently with pain and catastrophizing, which may have implications for the design and testing of interventions targeting mindfulness and catastrophizing in fibromyalgia patients.
Heightened anticipation and fear of movement-related pain has been linked to detrimental fear-avoidance behavior in chronic low back pain (cLBP). Spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) has been proposed to work partly by exposing patients to nonharmful but forceful mobilization of the painful joint, thereby disrupting the relationship among pain anticipation, fear, and movement. Here, we investigated the brain processes underpinning pain anticipation and fear of movement in cLBP, and their modulation by SMT, using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Fifteen cLBP patients and 16 healthy control (HC) subjects were scanned while observing and rating video clips depicting back-straining or neutral physical exercises, which they knew they would have to perform at the end of the visit. This task was repeated after a single session of spinal manipulation (cLBP and HC group) or mobilization (cLBP group only), in separate visits. Compared with HC subjects, cLBP patients reported higher expected pain and fear of performing the observed exercises. These ratings, along with clinical pain, were reduced by SMT. Moreover, cLBP, relative to HC subjects, demonstrated higher blood oxygen level–dependent signal in brain circuitry that has previously been implicated in salience, social cognition, and mentalizing, while observing back straining compared with neutral exercises. The engagement of this circuitry was reduced after SMT, and especially the spinal manipulation session, proportionally to the magnitude of SMT-induced reduction in anticipated pain and fear. This study sheds light on the brain processing of anticipated pain and fear of back-straining movement in cLBP, and suggests that SMT may reduce cognitive and affective-motivational aspects of fear-avoidance behavior, along with corresponding brain processes. Perspective This study of cLBP patients investigated how SMT affects clinical pain, expected pain, and fear of physical exercises. The results indicate that one of the mechanisms of SMT may be to reduce pain expectancy, fear of movement, and associated brain responses.
Abstract Objective Central nervous system pathways involving pain modulation shape the pain experience in patients with chronic pain. Our objectives were to understand the mechanisms underlying pain in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and identify brain signals that may serve as imaging markers for developing targeted treatments for RA pain. Methods Subjects with RA and matched controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, using pulsed arterial spin labeling (pASL). The imaging conditions included: 1) resting state, 2) low intensity stimulus and 3) high intensity stimulus. Stimuli consisted of mechanical pressure applied to metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints with an automated cuff inflator. The low intensity stimulus was 30 mmHg. The high intensity stimulus was the amount of pressure required to achieve 40/100 pain intensity for each RA patient, with the same amount of pressure given to the matched control. Results Among RA patients, regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in medial frontal cortex (MFC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex increased during both low and high pressure stimuli. No rCBF changes were noted for pain-free controls. In region of interest analyses among RA patients, baseline rCBF in MFC was negatively correlated with pressure required for the high intensity stimulus (p<0.01) and positively correlated with pain induced by the low intensity stimulus (p<0.05). Baseline rCBF also marginally correlated with disease activity (p=0.05). rCBF during high pain was positively correlated with pain severity and interference (p's<0.05). Conclusion In response to clinically-relevant joint pain evoked by MCP pressure, neural processing in MFC increases and is directly associated with clinical pain in RA. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Evers AWM, Colloca L, Blease C, Annoni M, Atlas LY, Bnedetti F, Bingel U, Büchel C, Carvalho C, Colagiuri B, Crum AJ, Enck P, Gaab J, Geers AL, Howick J, Jensen KB, Kirsch I, Meissner K, Napadow V, Peerdeman KJ, Raz A, Rief W, Vase L, Wager TD, Wampold BE, Weimer K, Wiech KA, Kaptchuk TJ, Klinger RB, Kelley JM. Implications of Placebo and Nocebo Effects for Clinical Practice: Expert Consensus. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 2018;87:204-210.Abstract
Background: Placebo and nocebo effects occur in clinical or laboratory medical contexts after administration of an inert treatment or as part of active treatments and are due to psychobiological mechanisms such as expectancies of the patient. Placebo and nocebo studies have evolved from predominantly methodological research into a far-reaching interdisciplinary field that is unravelling the neurobiological, behavioural and clinical underpinnings of these phenomena in a broad variety of medical conditions. As a consequence, there is an increasing demand from health professionals to develop expert recommendations about evidence-based and ethical use of placebo and nocebo effects for clinical practice. Methods: A survey and interdisciplinary expert meeting by invitation was organized as part of the 1st Society for Interdisciplinary Placebo Studies (SIPS) conference in 2017. Twenty-nine internationally recognized placebo researchers participated. Results: There was consensus that maximizing placebo effects and minimizing nocebo effects should lead to better treatment outcomes with fewer side effects. Experts particularly agreed on the importance of informing patients about placebo and nocebo effects and training health professionals in patient-clinician communication to maximize placebo and minimize nocebo effects. Conclusions: The current paper forms a first step towards developing evidence-based and ethical recommendations about the implications of placebo and nocebo research for medical practice, based on the current state of evidence and the consensus of experts. Future research might focus on how to implement these recommendations, including how to optimize conditions for educating patients about placebo and nocebo effects and providing training for the implementation in clinical practice.
Objective Pain catastrophizing is a common feature of chronic pain, including fibromyalgia (FM), and is strongly associated with amplified pain severity and disability. While previous neuroimaging studies have focused on evoked pain response modulation by catastrophizing, the brain mechanisms supporting pain catastrophizing itself are unknown. We designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)–based pain catastrophizing task whereby patients with chronic pain engaged in catastrophizing-related cognitions. We undertook this study to test our hypothesis that catastrophizing about clinical pain would be associated with amplified activation in nodes of the default mode network (DMN), which encode self-referential cognition and show altered functioning in chronic pain. Methods During fMRI, 31 FM patients reflected on how catastrophizing (CAT) statements (drawn from the Pain Catastrophizing Scale) impact their typical FM pain experience. Response to CAT statements was compared to response to matched neutral (NEU) statements. Results During statement reflection, higher fMRI signal during CAT statements than during NEU statements was found in several DMN brain areas, including the ventral (posterior) and dorsal (anterior) posterior cingulate cortex (vPCC and dPCC, respectively). Patients’ ratings of CAT statement applicability were correlated solely with activity in the vPCC, a main DMN hub supporting self-referential cognition (r = 0.38, P < 0.05). Clinical pain severity was correlated solely with activity in the dPCC, a PCC subregion associated with cognitive control and sensorimotor processing (r = 0.38, P < 0.05). Conclusion These findings provide evidence that the PCC encodes pain catastrophizing in FM and suggest distinct roles for different PCC subregions. Understanding the brain circuitry encoding pain catastrophizing in FM will prove to be important in identifying and evaluating the success of interventions targeting negative affect in chronic pain management.
Migraine pathophysiology includes altered brainstem excitability, and recent neuromodulatory approaches aimed at controlling migraine episodes have targeted key brainstem relay and modulatory nuclei. In this study, we evaluated the impact of respiratory-gated auricular vagal afferent nerve stimulation (RAVANS), a novel neuromodulatory intervention based on an existing transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation approach, in the modulation of brainstem activity and connectivity in migraine patients. We applied 3T-functional magnetic resonance imaging with improved in-plane spatial resolution (2.62 × 2.62 mm) in episodic migraine (interictal) and age- and sex-matched healthy controls to evaluate brain response to RAVANS (gated to either inhalation or exhalation) and sham stimulation. We further investigated RAVANS modulation of tactile trigeminal sensory afference response in the brainstem using air-puff stimulation directed to the forehead during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Compared with sham and inhalatory-gated RAVANS (iRAVANS), exhalatory-gated RAVANS (eRAVANS) activated an ipsilateral pontomedullary region consistent with nucleus tractus solitarii (NTS). During eRAVANS, NTS connectivity was increased to anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex, compared with both sham and iRAVANS, in migraine patients. Increased connectivity was inversely correlated with relative time to the next migraine attack, suggesting clinical relevance to this change in connectivity. Poststimulation effects were also noted immediately after eRAVANS, as we found increased activation in putative pontine serotonergic (ie, nucleus raphe centralis) and noradrenergic (ie, locus coeruleus) nuclei in response to trigeminal sensory afference. Regulation of activity and connectivity of brainstem and cortical regions involved in serotonergic and noradrenergic regulation and pain modulation may constitute an underlying mechanism supporting beneficial clinical outcomes for eRAVANS applied for episodic migraine.
Objective.: Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition with few effective treatments. Many fibromyalgia patients seek acupuncture for analgesia; however, its efficacy is limited and not fully understood. This may be due to heterogeneous pathologies among participants in acupuncture clinical trials. We hypothesized that pressure pain tenderness would differentially classify treatment response to verum and sham acupuncture in fibromyalgia patients.
Design.: Baseline pressure pain sensitivity at the thumbnail at baseline was used in linear mixed models as a modifier of differential treatment response to sham versus verum acupuncture. Similarly, needle-induced sensation was also analyzed to determine its differential effect of treatment on clinical pain.
Methods and Patients.: A cohort of 114 fibromyalgia patients received baseline pressure pain testing and were randomized to either verum (N = 59) or sham (N = 55) acupuncture. Participants received treatments from once a week to three times a week, increasing in three-week blocks for a total of 18 treatments. Clinical pain was measured on a 101-point visual analog scale, and needle sensation was measured by questionnaire throughout the trial.
Results.: Participants who had higher pain pressure thresholds had greater reduction in clinical pain following verum acupuncture while participants who had lower pain pressure thresholds showed better analgesic response to sham acupuncture. Moreover, patients with lower pressure pain thresholds had exacerbated clinical pain following verum acupuncture. Similar relationships were observed for sensitivity to acupuncture needling.
Conclusions.: These findings suggest that acupuncture efficacy in fibromyalgia may be underestimated and a more personalized treatment for fibromyalgia may also be possible.
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a complex syndrome characterized by chronic widespread pain, hyperalgesia, and other disabling symptoms. Although the brain response to experimental pain in FM patients has been the object of intense investigation, the biological underpinnings of painful after-sensations (PAS), and their relation to negative affect have received little attention. In this cross-sectional cohort study, subjects with FM (n = 53) and healthy controls (n = 17) were assessed for PAS using exposure to a sustained, moderately painful cuff stimulus to the leg, individually calibrated to a target pain intensity of 40 of 100. Despite requiring lower cuff pressures to achieve the target pain level, FM patients reported more pronounced PAS 15 seconds after the end of cuff stimulation, which correlated positively with clinical pain scores. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed reduced deactivation of the medial temporal lobe (MTL; amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus) in FM patients, during pain stimulation, as well as in the ensuing poststimulation period, when PAS are experienced. Moreover, the functional magnetic resonance imaging signal measured during the poststimulation period in the MTL, as well as in the insular and anterior middle cingulate and medial prefrontal cortices, correlated with the severity of reported PAS by FM patients. These results suggest that the MTL plays a role in PAS in FM patients. PERSPECTIVE: PAS are more common and severe in FM, and are associated with clinical pain and catastrophizing. PAS severity is also associated with less MTL deactivation, suggesting that the MTL, a core node of the default mode network, may be important in the prolongation of pain sensation in FM.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is the most common entrapment neuropathy, affecting the median nerve at the wrist. Acupuncture is a minimally-invasive and conservative therapeutic option, and while rooted in a complex practice ritual, acupuncture overlaps significantly with many conventional peripherally-focused neuromodulatory therapies. However, the neurophysiological mechanisms by which acupuncture impacts accepted subjective/psychological and objective/physiological outcomes are not well understood. Eligible patients (n = 80, 65 female, age: 49.3 ± 8.6 years) were enrolled and randomized into three intervention arms: (i) verum electro-acupuncture 'local' to the more affected hand; (ii) verum electro-acupuncture at 'distal' body sites, near the ankle contralesional to the more affected hand; and (iii) local sham electro-acupuncture using non-penetrating placebo needles. Acupuncture therapy was provided for 16 sessions over 8 weeks. Boston Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Questionnaire assessed pain and paraesthesia symptoms at baseline, following therapy and at 3-month follow-up. Nerve conduction studies assessing median nerve sensory latency and brain imaging data were acquired at baseline and following therapy. Functional magnetic resonance imaging assessed somatotopy in the primary somatosensory cortex using vibrotactile stimulation over three digits (2, 3 and 5). While all three acupuncture interventions reduced symptom severity, verum (local and distal) acupuncture was superior to sham in producing improvements in neurophysiological outcomes, both local to the wrist (i.e. median sensory nerve conduction latency) and in the brain (i.e. digit 2/3 cortical separation distance). Moreover, greater improvement in second/third interdigit cortical separation distance following verum acupuncture predicted sustained improvements in symptom severity at 3-month follow-up. We further explored potential differential mechanisms of local versus distal acupuncture using diffusion tensor imaging of white matter microstructure adjacent to the primary somatosensory cortex. Compared to healthy adults (n = 34, 28 female, 49.7 ± 9.9 years old), patients with carpal tunnel syndrome demonstrated increased fractional anisotropy in several regions and, for these regions we found that improvement in median nerve latency was associated with reduction of fractional anisotropy near (i) contralesional hand area following verum, but not sham, acupuncture; (ii) ipsilesional hand area following local, but not distal or sham, acupuncture; and (iii) ipsilesional leg area following distal, but not local or sham, acupuncture. As these primary somatosensory cortex subregions are distinctly targeted by local versus distal acupuncture electrostimulation, acupuncture at local versus distal sites may improve median nerve function at the wrist by somatotopically distinct neuroplasticity in the primary somatosensory cortex following therapy. Our study further suggests that improvements in primary somatosensory cortex somatotopy can predict long-term clinical outcomes for carpal tunnel syndrome.