Imaging Pain And Brain Plasticity: A Longitudinal Structural Imaging Study

James Hart Bishop, University of Vermont


Chronic musculoskeletal pain is a leading cause of disability worldwide yet the mechanisms of chronification and neural responses to effective treatment remain elusive. Non-invasive imaging techniques are useful for investigating brain alterations associated with health and disease. Thus the overall goal of this dissertation was to investigate the white (WM) and grey matter (GM) structural differences in patients with musculoskeletal pain before and after psychotherapeutic intervention: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). To aid in the interpretation of clinical findings, we used a novel porcine model of low back pain-like pathophysiology and developed a post-mortem, in situ, neuroimaging approach to facilitate translational investigation.

The first objective of this dissertation (Chapter 2) was to identify structural brain alterations in chronic pain patients compared to healthy controls. To achieve this, we examined GM volume and diffusivity as well as WM metrics of complexity, density, and connectivity. Consistent with the literature, we observed robust differences in GM volume across a number of brain regions in chronic pain patients, however, findings of increased GM volume in several regions are in contrast to previous reports. We also identified WM changes, with pain patients exhibiting reduced WM density in tracts that project to descending pain modulatory regions as well as increased connectivity to default mode network structures, and bidirectional alterations in complexity. These findings may reflect network level dysfunction in patients with chronic pain.

The second aim (Chapter 3) was to investigate reversibility or neuroplasticity of structural alterations in the chronic pain brain following CBT compared to an active control group. Longitudinal evaluation was carried out at baseline, following 11-week intervention, and a four-month follow-up. Similarly, we conducted structural brain assessments including GM morphometry and WM complexity and connectivity. We did not observe GM volumetric or WM connectivity changes, but we did discover differences in WM complexity after therapy and at follow-up visits.

To facilitate mechanistic investigation of pain related brain changes, we used a novel porcine model of low back pain-like pathophysiology (Chapter 6). This model replicates hallmarks of chronic pain, such as soft tissue injury and movement alteration. We also developed a novel protocol to perform translational post-mortem, in situ, neuroimaging in our porcine model to reproduce WM and GM findings observed in humans, followed by a unique perfusion and immersion fixation protocol to enable histological assessment (Chapter 4).

In conclusion, our clinical data suggest robust structural brain alterations in patients with chronic pain as compared to healthy individuals and in response to therapeutic intervention. However, the mechanism of these brain changes remains unknown. Therefore, we propose to use a porcine model of musculoskeletal pain with a novel neuroimaging protocol to promote mechanistic investigation and expand our interpretation of clinical findings.