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Brain Structure May Determine Pain Sensitivity

Update Date: Jan 15, 2014 07:50 AM EST

Brain structure may determine sensitivity to pain, according to a new study.

"We found that individual differences in the amount of grey matter in certain regions of the brain are related to how sensitive different people are to pain," senior author Robert Coghill, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist, said in a news release.

The brain consists of grey and white matter. Grey matter is the part that processes information and white matter is the part that organizes communication between different brain regions.  

The latest study involved 116 healthy volunteers. Researchers compared individual differences in pain sensitivity and MRI scans of participants' brain structure.  

The findings revealed that participants with less grey matter in certain brain regions experienced greater pain.

"Subjects with higher pain intensity ratings had less grey matter in brain regions that contribute to internal thoughts and control of attention," first author Nichole Emerson, B.S., a graduate student in the Coghill lab, said in a statement. The brain regions were the posterior cingulate cortex, precuneus and areas of the posterior parietal cortex.

Researchers explained that the posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus make up part of the default mode network, a group of connected brain regions linked to free-flowing thoughts during daydreaming.

"Default mode activity may compete with brain activity that generates an experience of pain, such that individuals with high default mode activity would have reduced sensitivity to pain," Coghill explained.

Parts of the posterior parietal cortex are important for attention. Researchers explained that people who are good at focusing might also be good at keeping pain under control.

"These kinds of structural differences can provide a foundation for the development of better tools for the diagnosis, classification, treatment and even prevention of pain," Coghill concluded.

The findings are published in the journal Pain.

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