Psychological Processes in Chronic Pain: Influences of Reward and Fear Learning as Key Mechanisms - Behavioral Evidence, Neural Circuits, and Maladaptive Changes

Neuroscience. 2018 Sep 1:387:72-84. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2017.08.051. Epub 2017 Sep 7.


In the understanding of chronic pain, hypotheses derived from psychological theories, together with insights from physiological assessments and brain imaging, highlight the importance of mechanistically driven approaches. Physical system changes, for example following injury, can result in alterations of psychological processes and are accompanied by changes in corticolimbic circuits, which have been shown to be essential in emotional learning and memory, as well as reward processing and related behavior. In the present review, we thus highlight the importance of motivational, reward/pain relief, and fear learning processes in the context of chronic pain and discuss the potential of a mechanistic understanding of chronic pain within a clinical perspective, for example for the development of therapeutic strategies. We argue that changes in these mechanisms are not only characteristic for chronic pain, reflecting consequences of the disorder, but are also critically involved in the transition from acute to chronic pain states.

Keywords: behavior; brain; chronic pain; fear learning; pain relief; reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Chronic Pain / psychology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Motivation
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Reward*