Several studies have reported reduced cerebral gray matter (GM) volume or density in chronic pain conditions, but there is limited research on the plasticity of the human cortex in response to psychological interventions. We investigated GM changes after cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in patients with chronic pain. We used voxel-based morphometry to compare anatomic magnetic resonance imaging scans of 13 patients with mixed chronic pain types before and after an 11-week CBT treatment and to 13 healthy control participants. CBT led to significant improvements in clinical measures. Patients did not differ from healthy controls in GM anywhere in the brain. After treatment, patients had increased GM in the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal, posterior parietal, subgenual anterior cingulate/orbitofrontal, and sensorimotor cortices, as well as hippocampus, and reduced GM in supplementary motor area. In most of these areas showing GM increases, GM became significantly higher than in controls. Decreased pain catastrophizing was associated with increased GM in the left dorsolateral prefrontal and ventrolateral prefrontal cortices, right posterior parietal cortex, somatosensory cortex, and pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. Although future studies with additional control groups will be needed to determine the specific roles of CBT on GM and brain function, we propose that increased GM in the prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices reflects greater top-down control over pain and cognitive reappraisal of pain, and that changes in somatosensory cortices reflect alterations in the perception of noxious signals.
Perspective: An 11-week CBT intervention for coping with chronic pain resulted in increased GM volume in prefrontal and somatosensory brain regions, as well as increased dorsolateral prefrontal volume associated with reduced pain catastrophizing. These results add to mounting evidence that CBT can be a valuable treatment option for chronic pain.
Keywords: CBT; Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; neuroimaging; pain catastrophizing; voxel-based morphometry.
Copyright © 2013 American Pain Society. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.