Study: Changes in environment can reverse chronic pain's effects on the brain
Via the process of observing mice who suffered from chronic pain, pain researchers were able to explore how chronic pain alters brain functions on a genetic level. They found that after several months, the mice's pain was altering parts of the their brains that were unrelated to processing pain. They found that the mice's pain "severely curtailed" gene activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to decision making and emotion, something that can reduce the density in this area of the brain and lead to anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment.
As a follow-up, researchers explored whether pain's negative effect on the brain could be reversed. They split a group of mice, all suffering from pain, between an impoverished, lonely environment and an enriched environment, complete with other mice and marbles to play with. Following two months in these different environments, the mice in the enriched environment no longer suffered chronic pain and their prefrontal cortexes returned to "normal mouse activity."
The mice in the impoverished environment experienced reduced brain activity, which resulted in cognitive impairment. The study suggests that chronic pain is an "epigenetic phenomenon," meaning that life experience changes the actual genetic expression of the brain.
The authors find these conclusions to be hopeful, because it suggests that "the actions we take today can actually change how our brains function tomorrow."