Chronic pain is fundamentally different from acute nociceptive pain in its underlying mechanisms, symptoms and especially, in response to treatment. There is a high comorbidity of chronic pain with diseases such as anxiety and depression. Some studies suggest that during chronification of pain, the affective/emotional features of pain become more dominant. Critically, achieving a positive clinical outcome with current analgesic therapies appears to be negatively correlated with pain chronicity. Neuroimaging studies in chronic pain patients have identified brain regions with altered opioid and dopamine function, suggesting that impairments in these neurotransmitter systems could underlie the transition from acute to chronic pain. We have recently demonstrated in animal pain models that relief of ongoing pain is rewarding and requires dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Moreover, these behavioral and neurochemical measures of pain relief depend on endogenous opioid neurotransmission in the cingulate cortex (ACC), an area encoding aversiveness of pain. Chronic pain may produce sustained opioid signaling in the ACC resulting in progressive changes in opioid transmitter-receptor function in this region, and over time, in reduced analgesic efficacy. Determining whether there is a causal relationship between pain, brain neuronal maladaptations and analgesic effectiveness of pain therapies in humans is difficult and potentially unethical. Therefore, we will employ a rat model of chronic neuropathic pain to perform longitudinal studies over a six months period to more closely mimic the human chronic pain condition.
In Aim 1 we will investigate the temporal changes in opioid and dopamine neurotransmission in the brain regions encoding affective and motivational aspects of pain. We will use fast scan cyclic voltammetry (FSCV) and fast scan controlled adsorption voltammetry (FSCAV) techniques pioneered in our laboratories that allow measurements of phasic and tonic levels of dopamine in awake behaving animals with unprecedented temporal and spatial resolution. The phasic release of dopamine may be influenced by chronic pain-related changes in tonic dopamine levels. Additionally, we will use a novel in vivo microdialysis method involving online preservation coupled with LC-MS3 detection to measure the low levels of endogenous opioid peptides in the ACC in behaving animals in control and pain conditions.
Aim 2 will investigate whether pain chronicity is related to reduced efficacy of opioid and dopamine signaling. Our laboratory demonstrated that in animals, relief of pain aversiveness produces negative reinforcement that can be assessed behaviorally using conditioned place preference (CPP). CPP can be viewed as the animal's self- report of analgesic efficacy that encompasses learning as well as motivational and affective features of ongoing pain and therefore provides information that is likely of translational relevance to the human pain experience. We will use the CPP paradigm to evaluate progression of ongoing neuropathic pain and to assess the efficacy of opioid and non-opioid analgesics over time.
Aim 3 will establish if normalization of dopamine and opioid function can be achieved with reversal of chronic pain using methods currently in clinical trials. The proposed studies address gaps in our knowledge that include causality, chronicity and reversibility of pain- related brain dopamine and opioid function. Additionally, these studies may allow for objective quantification of chronicity and serv as a biomarker of effective pain relieving treatments that may speed translation and discovery of new pain therapeutics.
Brain neuroimaging investigations in chronic pain patients have identified deficits in opioid neurotransmission in cortical regions encoding aversive aspects of pain. Recently, in animal models of pain, we have shown that relief of pain depends on opioid neurotransmission in these brain areas. The changes in endogenous opioid mechanisms in chronic pain may therefore reduce the efficacy of opioid analgesics and may lead to the progressive development of affective and depressive symptoms characteristic for chronic pain. This project will evaluate changes in cortical opioid expression and function over a six months period following induction of neuropathic pain, to preclinically mimic chronic pain states in patients. We will investigate whether brain opioid changes are causally linked to pain, whether there is a time relationship to pain chronicity and development of comorbid symptoms and whether brain changes, once established, are reversible with treatment of pain.
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