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Ann Rheum Dis. 1997 Oct;56(10):601-7.

Reduced cortical responses to noxious heat in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

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Human Physiology and Pain Research Laboratory, University of Manchester Rheumatic Diseases Centre, Hope Hospital, Salford.



To test the hypothesis that patients with chronic inflammatory pain develop adaptive cortical responses to noxious stimulation characterised by reduced anterior cingulate responses.


Positron emission tomography was used to measure changes in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in response to an acute experimental pain stimulus in six patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in comparison to six age and sex matched controls. A standardised and reproducible non-painful and painful phasic heat stimulus was delivered by a thermal probe to the back of the right hand during six two minute periods during which time rCBF measurements were made. The effects of non-painful heat were subtracted from those of painful heat to weight the analysis towards the non-discriminatory or 'suffering' components of pain processing. Significance maps of pain processing were generated and compared in each group and contrasted with results obtained in a group of patients with atypical facial pain (AFP) that have been previously published.


The RA patients showed remarkably damped cortical and subcortical responses to pain compared with the control group. Significant differences between the two groups were observed in the prefrontal (BA 10) and anterior cingulate (BA 24) and cingulofrontal transition cortical (BA 32) areas. The reduced anterior cingulate responses to standardised heat pain were compared with the increased cingulate responses seen in patients with psychogenically maintained pain (AFP) who had both lower pain tolerance and mood than the RA group.


Major cortical adaptive responses to standardised noxious heat can be measured and contrasted in patients with different types of chronic pain. The different pattern of cingulate and frontal cortical responses in the patients with inflammatory and non-nociceptive pain suggest that different mechanisms are operating, possibly at a thalamocortical level. Implications for treatment strategies for chronic pain are discussed.

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