- This phenomenon is associated with a decrease in the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, an inhibitory neurotransmitter.
- Without GABA, our emotional reactions or thoughts would be amplified, uncontrollably.
About a third of adults (30%) have chronic pain, according toNational Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm). They can be related to pathology, joint and muscle problems, migraines, etc. It is said to be chronic when it lasts for more than three months. In this case, it is no longer a symptom but rather a disease in itself. In the long run, it is clear that this suffering can affect daily life – both personal and professional – and have psychological consequences. A study recently published in the journal European Journal of Pain It confirms: According to researchers, chronic pain and depression are linked because long-term suffering disrupts the chemical functioning of a part of the brain involved in mood.
GABA: Neurotransmitters essential for brain signaling
“Chronic pain is more than just a terrible feeling, explains Sylvia Justin, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of New South Wales and NeuRA, a neurological research institute in Australia, and one of the authors of the study. It can affect our feelings, beliefs and the way we are“.
The aim of this study was to better understand the relationship between the physical aspect of pain and its psychological repercussions. To do this, the scientists analyzed brain scans of 48 volunteers with or without chronic pain. Thus, they wanted to monitor the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) for each. GABA is a type of neurotransmitter called an “inhibitor” that controls the activity of neurons throughout the nervous system. Therefore, its role is crucial to the proper functioning of brain signals.
Without GABA, we have no control over our thoughts or emotions
When the level of GABA is equal to the level of glutamate – a stimulating neurotransmitter – the feelings of the individual are beneficial, that is, they stimulate him without causing him too much stress. Researchers already knew that the amount of glutamate decreases when an individual suffers from chronic pain. At the same time, he was also suffering from a major emotional turmoil.
Advances in this study have successfully demonstrated that chronic pain was associated with low GABA levels. In other words: physical suffering causes anxiety because the number of GABA is reduced. In fact, according to the analyzed brain scans, GABA levels were very different depending on the chronic pain. Even more worrisome, researchers also believe that chronic pain – and thus over a long period of time – can permanently affect the way our brain processes emotions, by reducing inhibitory actions. So without GABA, our emotional reactions or thoughts will be amplified, uncontrollably.
Hope for better care for these patients
“We have shown, for the first time in humans, that persistent pain is associated with a decrease in GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the medial prefrontal cortex. In other words, there is an actual pathological change taking placeUltimately, this study could provide researchers with a better understanding of the brain in order to better manage people with depression related to chronic pain.