Brain Circuits Involved in the Development of Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain : Evidence From Non-invasive Brain Stimulation

It has been well-documented that the brain changes in states of chronic pain. Less is known about changes in the brain that predict the transition from acute to chronic pain. Evidence from neuroimaging studies suggests a shift from brain regions involved in nociceptive processing to corticostriatal brain regions that are instrumental in the processing of reward and emotional learning in the transition to the chronic state. In addition, dysfunction in descending pain modulatory circuits encompassing the periaqueductal gray and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex may also be a key risk factor for pain chronicity. Although longitudinal imaging studies have revealed potential predictors of pain chronicity, their causal role has not yet been determined. Here we review evidence from studies that involve non-invasive brain stimulation to elucidate to what extent they may help to elucidate the brain circuits involved in pain chronicity. Especially, we focus on studies using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques [e.g., transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), particularly its repetitive form (rTMS), transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)] in the context of musculoskeletal pain chronicity. We focus on the role of the motor cortex because of its known contribution to sensory components of pain via thalamic inhibition, and the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex because of its role on cognitive and affective processing of pain. We will also discuss findings from studies using experimentally induced prolonged pain and studies implicating the DLPFC, which may shed light on the earliest transition phase to chronicity. We propose that combined brain stimulation and imaging studies might further advance mechanistic models of the chronicity process and involved brain circuits. Implications and challenges for translating the research on mechanistic models of the development of chronic pain to clinical practice will also be addressed.


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