Unravelling the link between chronic pain and mental health disorders

Researchers: Associate Prof Sylvia Gustin, Brooke Naylor, David Kang, Anton Paulson, Daniel Hultberg, Negin Hesam-Shariati

Chronic pain is a significant problem worldwide that results in enormous suffering and costs to affected individuals, their loved ones, and society. The experience of chronic pain is so much more than a sensation. Chronic pain impacts our emotions, cognition and social life. In Australia, an alarming 20 per cent of people with chronic pain have considered suicide. A/Prof Sylvia Gustin and her team are at the forefront of unravelling the impact of chronic pain on the brain. People with chronic pain can develop mental health disorders including anxiety and depression. The prevalence of depression in people with chronic pain is as high as 54 per cent and at least 35 per cent experience anxiety. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which sits just behind the forehead is of particular interest when considering emotional and cognitive processing in the brain.

Using cutting edge imaging techniques this project will identify alterations in the medial prefrontal cortex associated with chronic pain and hence with comorbid mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Given the urgent need of novel effective pain therapies for the millions of people affected by chronic pain worldwide, the research that Dr Gustin and her team are doing is fundamental to understanding the underlying mechanisms for the development and maintenance of chronic pain and comorbid mental health disorders so that more effective treatments can be developed.