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Chronic pain can change the way your brain processes emotion, scientists find

Anyone who has lived with chronic pain will be well aware of the emotional pain that can come with it.

Key points:

  • Researchers found people with chronic pain had lower levels of glutamate, which helps regulate emotion

  • There are no medications that target reduced levels of glutamate in the brain

  • Scientists are developing a computer program to teach brain cells to communicate properly again

  • But new research from Australian scientists shows there is a physical reason for it: chronic pain can physically change the brain.

Researchers from Neuroscience Research Australia compared the brain scans of 19 patients with conditions such as nerve pain and jaw disorders against the scans of 19 healthy people.

Sylvia Gustin found patients with chronic pain had lower levels of a substance called glutamate, a key chemical messenger between brain cells that helps regulate emotion.

"[It] means their brain cells can no longer communicate properly and therefore their ability to process positive emotion is jeopardised," Associate Professor Gustin said.

As a result, people in chronic pain can have personality changes where they are "prone to feeling tired, unmotivated and constantly worrying on a daily basis", she said.

Researchers found the greater the decrease in glutamate, the more chronic pain sufferers showed fearfulness, pessimism, fatigue, and sensitivity to criticism.

While researchers say the scenario needs to be replicated in a larger trial, the findings remain a great source of comfort for Daune Coogan.

Ms Coogan lives with a painful condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication of having shingles.

Article originally published in ABC News

We are currently seeking applications for potential participants to be part of our trial to investigate an emotional recovery program for chronic pain. For more information and to express your interest, please email


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