Gray matter volume reduction reflects chronic pain in trigeminal neuralgia

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Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is supposedly caused by an ectatic blood vessel affecting the trigeminal nerve at the root entry zone of the brain stem. Recent evidence suggests an additional central component within trigeminal pain-processing in the pathophysiology of TN. Therefore, we aimed to identify specific brain regions possibly associated with the development or maintenance of TN using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) voxel-based morphometry (VBM).

Sixty patients with classical TN were compared to 49 healthy controls. Eighteen patients had TN with concomitant constant facial pain, a condition previously described as a predictor of worse treatment outcome.

We found gray matter (GM) volume reduction in TN patients compared to healthy controls in the primary somatosensory and orbitofrontal cortices, as well as the in the secondary somatosensory cortex, thalamus, insula, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), cerebellum, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. GM volume decrease within the ACC, parahippocampus, and temporal lobe correlated with increasing disease duration in TN. There were no differences comparing patients with and without concomitant constant facial pain. No GM increase was found comparing patient subgroups with each other and with healthy controls.

The observed changes probably reflect the impact of multiple, daily attacks of trigeminal pain in these patients similar to what was previously described in other chronic pain conditions and may be interpreted as adaptation mechanism to chronic pain in regard to neuronal plasticity. The ACC, parahippocampus and temporal lobe volume reduction in parallel with disease duration may point to a pivotal role of these structures in chronic pain.

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