In a world first, Australian researchers have found that people with chronic pain experience physical alterations in their brain that likely lead to negative personality changes.
The study, led by Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW Sydney Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, discovered people with chronic pain have smaller amounts of the brain’s key chemical messenger, glutamate, in the region responsible for regulating thoughts and emotions.
“The study shows people with chronic pain experience disruptions in the communication between brain cells,” Associate Professor Gustin said.
“This could lead to a change in personality through a reduction of their ability to effectively process emotions, making them more negative, fearful, pessimistic or worried.”
Researchers studied participants with chronic pain and found that the lower the glutamate levels within the medial prefrontal cortex, the more a person experienced these negative personality changes.
“The potential impact of this discovery is huge,” Associate Professor Gustin said.
“This finding indicates we could increase the brain’s key chemical messenger, glutamate, to improve associated mental health problems in people with chronic pain.”
No drugs are available that directly target the decreased glutamate levels in the medial prefrontal cortex experienced by people with chronic pain. The team will now test whether increasing glutamate levels will reverse negative personality changes caused by pain.
With one in five people having chronic pain, Associate Professor Gustin believes her study could reshape thinking about such people.
“People with chronic pain are often unfairly labelled as having certain personality traits that make them more likely to experience pain,” she said.
“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.”
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 were published this week in the research journal Frontiers.