Neurochemical dynamics of acute orofacial pain in the human trigeminal brainstem nuclear complex

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The trigeminal brainstem sensory nuclear complex is the first central relay structure mediating orofacial somatosensory and nociceptive perception. Animal studies suggest a substantial involvement of neurochemical alterations at such basal CNS levels in acute and chronic pain processing. Translating this animal based knowledge to humans is challenging. Human related examining of brainstem functions are challenged by MR related peculiarities as well as applicability aspects of experimentally standardized paradigms.

Based on our experience with an MR compatible human orofacial pain model, the aims of the present study were twofold: 1) from a technical perspective, the evaluation of proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy at 3 T regarding measurement accuracy of neurochemical profiles in this small brainstem nuclear complex and 2) the examination of possible neurochemical alterations induced by an experimental orofacial pain model.

Data from 13 healthy volunteers aged 19–46 years were analyzed and revealed high quality spectra with significant reductions in total N-acetylaspartate (N-acetylaspartate + N-acetylaspartylglutamate) (−3.7%, p = 0.009) and GABA (−10.88%, p = 0.041) during the pain condition. These results might reflect contributions of N-acetylaspartate and N-acetylaspartylglutamate in neuronal activity-dependent physiologic processes and/or excitatory neurotransmission, whereas changes in GABA might indicate towards a reduction in tonic GABAergic functioning during nociceptive signaling.

Summarized, the present study indicates the applicability of 1H-MRS to obtain neurochemical dynamics within the human trigeminal brainstem sensory nuclear complex. Further developments are needed to pave the way towards bridging important animal based knowledge with human research to understand the neurochemistry of orofacial nociception and pain.

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