Corticolimbic Circuitry in Chronic Pain Tracks Pain Intensity Relief Following Exposure In Vivo

Inge Timmers*, Vincent van de Ven, Johan W.S. Vlaeyen, Rob Smeets, Jeanine Verbunt, Jeroen de Jong, Amanda L. Kaas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A subset of patients with chronic pain who receive exposure in vivo (EXP) treatment experience clinically relevant relief of pain intensity. Although pain relief is not an explicit therapeutic target, it is important to understand how and why this concomitant effect occurs in some patients but not others. This longitudinal study therefore aimed to characterize brain plasticity as well as to explore pretreatment factors related to pain relief.
Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging data were acquired in 30 patients with chronic pain. Twenty-three patients completed EXP, and 6-month follow-up data were available in 20 patients (magnetic resonance imaging data in 17 patients). Pain-free control data were acquired at two time points (n = 29, n = 21). Seed-based resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) analyses were performed, with seeds in the amygdala, hippocampus, and nucleus accumbens.
Pain relief after EXP was highly variable, with 60% of patients reporting a clinically relevant improvement. Amygdala rsFC with the middle frontal gyrus decreased significantly over time in patients but was not associated with pain relief. In contrast, greater pain relief was associated with greater decreases over time in hippocampus rsFC with the precuneus, which was related to reductions in catastrophizing (EXP therapeutic target) as well. Greater pain relief was also associated with lower pretreatment rsFC between nucleus accumbens and postcentral gyrus.
While changes in hippocampus rsFC were associated with pain relief after EXP, pretreatment nucleus accumbens rsFC showed potential prognostic value. Our findings further support the importance of corticolimbic circuitry in chronic pain, emphasizing its relation to pain relief and identifying potential underlying mechanisms and prognostic factors, warranting further testing in independent samples.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-36
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Global Open Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Cite this