Stress relief by distraction: Not all of it in the head

by Bhushan

Posted on March 23, 2020 at 12:00 PM

The results based on high-resolution spinal fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) when people experience intense heat levels suggest that visual disturbances in the earliest stage of central pain perception actually inhibit the response to incoming pain signals.

"The results show that this effect is not just a psychological phenomenon, but an actual neural process that reduces the amount of pain signals going up from the spinal cord to higher-order brain regions," said Christian Sprenger of the Hamburg-Eppendorf University Medical Center.

The recent research suggests that these symptoms include endogenous opioids that are normally developed by the brain and play a key role in pain relief.

The research group challenged participants to perform either a difficult or a simple recall task, each asking them to remember letters while adding an uncomfortable level of heat to their arms at the same time.

When study participants were more overwhelmed by the more complicated of the two recall tasks they generally felt less discomfort. What's more, lower activation in the spinal cord mirrored their less traumatic experience as found in fMRI scans. (FMRI is often used to measure changes in brain activity, explained Sprenger, and recent advances have allowed this tool to be extended for use in the spinal cord.)

Sprenger and collaborators then repeated the test again, this time either giving participants a medication called naloxone that inhibits the symptoms of opioids, or a plain injection of saline. During the administration of the opioid antagonist, the pain-relieving effects of agitation reduced by 40 percent compared with saline, suggesting that endogenous opioids play an important function.

The studies demonstrate how deeply emotional mechanisms can affect the perception of suffering, and this can be of therapeutic importance.

"Our results affirm the importance of cognitive-behavioral therapy strategies in the treatment of pain disorders, as it could be extrapolated that such interventions could also theoretically change the underlying neurobiological pathways as early as in the spinal cord," the researchers claim.

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