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Neurosci Lett. 2012 Jun 29;520(2):156-64. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.010. Epub 2012 Mar 14.

The use of functional neuroimaging to evaluate psychological and other non-pharmacological treatments for clinical pain.

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Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)/Harvard Medical School (HMS), Boston, MA, USA.


A large number of studies have provided evidence for the efficacy of psychological and other non-pharmacological interventions in the treatment of chronic pain. While these methods are increasingly used to treat pain, remarkably few studies focused on the exploration of their neural correlates. The aim of this article was to review the findings from neuroimaging studies that evaluated the neural response to distraction-based techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), clinical hypnosis, mental imagery, physical therapy/exercise, biofeedback, and mirror therapy. To date, the results from studies that used neuroimaging to evaluate these methods have not been conclusive and the experimental methods have been suboptimal for assessing clinical pain. Still, several different psychological and non-pharmacological treatment modalities were associated with increased pain-related activations of executive cognitive brain regions, such as the ventral- and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. There was also evidence for decreased pain-related activations in afferent pain regions and limbic structures. If future studies will address the technical and methodological challenges of today's experiments, neuroimaging might have the potential of segregating the neural mechanisms of different treatment interventions and elucidate predictive and mediating factors for successful treatment outcomes. Evaluations of treatment-related brain changes (functional and structural) might also allow for sub-grouping of patients and help to develop individualized treatments.

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