Unlearning chronic pain: A randomized controlled trial to investigate changes in intrinsic brain connectivity following Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Neuroimage Clin. 2014 Jul 23;5:365-76. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2014.07.008. eCollection 2014.


Chronic pain is a complex physiological and psychological phenomenon. Implicit learning mechanisms contribute to the development of chronic pain and to persistent changes in the central nervous system. We hypothesized that these central abnormalities can be remedied with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Specifically, since regions of the anterior Default Mode Network (DMN) are centrally involved in emotional regulation via connections with limbic regions, such as the amygdala, remediation of maladaptive behavioral and cognitive patterns as a result of CBT for chronic pain would manifest itself as a change in the intrinsic functional connectivity (iFC) between these prefrontal and limbic regions. Resting-state functional neuroimaging was performed in patients with chronic pain before and after 11-week CBT (n = 19), as well as a matched (ages 19-59, both sexes) active control group of patients who received educational materials (n = 19). Participants were randomized prior to the intervention. To investigate the differential impact of treatment on intrinsic functional connectivity (iFC), we compared pre-post differences in iFC between groups. In addition, we performed exploratory whole brain analyses of changes in fractional amplitude of low frequency fluctuations (fALFF). The course of CBT led to significant improvements in clinical measures of pain and self-efficacy for coping with chronic pain. Significant group differences in pre-post changes in both iFC and fALFF were correlated with clinical outcomes. Compared to control patients, iFC between the anterior DMN and the amygdala/periaqueductal gray decreased following CBT, whereas iFC between the basal ganglia network and the right secondary somatosensory cortex increased following CBT. CBT patients also had increased post-therapy fALFF in the bilateral posterior cingulate and the cerebellum. By delineating neuroplasticity associated with CBT-related improvements, these results add to mounting evidence that CBT is a valuable treatment option for chronic pain.

Keywords: CBT; Chronic pain; Default Mode Network; Functional MRI; Functional connectivity.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology
  • Chronic Pain / pathology
  • Chronic Pain / psychology*
  • Chronic Pain / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Pain Management / methods
  • Pain Measurement
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Young Adult