Chronic pain may contribute to brain matter loss

April 27, 2021

A study from the University of Florida of non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic white adults links chronic knee pain and key demographic factors to differences in areas of the brain tied to memory, according to a news release from the university.

Participants who reported higher stages of pain and lower levels of income and education and less access to health insurance had thinner gray matter in these regions than those also experiencing higher stages of pain but who reported higher levels of income, education and greater access to health insurance.

Pain is a form of stress, both the symptoms and its effect on daily life. The research team has been investigating a new stage approach to measuring pain that characterizes chronic pain as a stressor based on factors that drive physiological change. These include frequency of pain (intermittent or persistent), average intensity of pain, duration of pain (how long living with pain), and extent of pain (number of pain sites across the body).

Participants with higher stages of pain and lower sociodemographic factors had about 4% less gray matter in the temporal lobe than participants in the same sociodemographic group with lower stages of pain.

The area of the brain where the gray matter loss occurred is predictive of future cognitive decline, indicating these adults might have greater risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, researchers said.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, included 147 adults between the ages of 45 and 85 who experience mild to moderate knee pain. Participants were asked to provide sociodemographic information, complete a brief assessment of cognitive function and answer questions about their experience of knee pain intensity, frequency, how long it has been occurring and if they experience pain in other areas of their body. MRI scans captured images of their brains.

“I think what this research offers is further understanding of the consequences of chronic pain and associated risk and protective factors and approaches to improve how we assess chronic pain, which will hopefully inform our efforts to treat pain,” said Kimberly Sibille, PhD, Associate Professor of Aging & Geriatric Research and Pain Medicine in the UF College of Medicine.

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