Pioneering study reveals association of chronic pain and broad epigenetic changes

February 15, 2013, McGill University

Injuries that result in chronic pain, such as limb injuries, and those unrelated to the brain are associated with epigenetic changes in the brain which persist months after the injury, according to researchers at McGill University. Epigenetics explores how the environment – including diet, exposure to contaminants and social conditions such as poverty – can have a long-term impact on the activity of our genes.

The team led by Prof. Laura Stone, a professor at the Faculty of Dentistry and the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, and Prof. Moshe Szyf, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine's Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, have discovered a mechanism that embeds the memory of an injury in the way the DNA is marked in the by a chemical coating called or DNA methylation. The researchers report in the journal , that if the symptoms of are attenuated, the abnormal changes in DNA methylation could be reversed.

Research pioneered at McGill has previously shown that experiences and not solely chemicals alter the way genes are marked epigenetically, impacting our behavior and well-being. DNA methylation, an epigenetic mark on the gene itself, can therefore serve as a "memory" of an experience that will alter the way the gene functions long after the original experience is gone. The crucial difference between "genetic" and "epigenetic" causes for disease is that genetic changes are inherited and fixed, while epigenetic changes in contrast are possibly reversible.

The McGill research is the first to link chronic pain to genome-wide epigenetic changes in the brain. "Injury results in long-term changes to the DNA markings in the brain; our work shows it might be possible to reverse the effects of chronic pain by interventions using either behavioral or pharmacological means that interfere with DNA methylation, says Prof. Szyf. "Our findings have the potential to completely alter the way we treat chronic pain."

In this study, the researchers show that behavioral interventions that reverse chronic pain also remove differences in DNA methylation in the brain.

The team report alterations in global are observed in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and amygdala of mice many months following injury to a nerve, and that environmental enrichment reduces both the pain and the pathological changes in PFC global methylation. They also found that the total amount of global methylation in the PFC significantly correlates with pain severity.

"These results suggest that epigenetic modulation mediates chronic pain-related alterations in the central nervous system (CNS), forming a "memory trace" for pain in the brain that can be targeted therapeutically, says Stone. Since respond to environmental changes, these mechanisms represent a mind-body link between chronic pain and the brain at the genomic level. "The implications of this work are wide reaching and may alter the way we think about chronic pain diagnosis, research and treatment".

Explore further: Treatment of chronic low back pain can reverse abnormal brain activity and function

Related Stories

Treatment of chronic low back pain can reverse abnormal brain activity and function

May 17, 2011
It likely comes as no surprise that low back pain is the most common form of chronic pain among adults. Lesser known is the fact that those withchronic pain also experience cognitive impairments and reduced gray matter in ...

Neuron memory key to taming chronic pain

February 13, 2012
For some, the pain is so great that they can't even bear to have clothes touch their skin. For others, it means that every step is a deliberate and agonizing choice. Whether the pain is caused by arthritic joints, an injury ...

Evidence of biological process that embeds social experience in DNA that affects entire networks of genes

October 11, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Early life experience results in a broad change in the way our DNA is "epigenetically" chemically marked in the brain by a coat of small chemicals called methyl groups, according to researchers at McGill ...

Study shows early brain changes predict which patients develop chronic pain

July 1, 2012
When people have similar injuries, why do some end up with chronic pain while others recover and are pain free? The first longitudinal brain imaging study to track participants with a new back injury has found the chronic ...

Acute stress alters control of gene activity

August 15, 2012
Acute stress alters the methylation of the DNA and thus the activity of certain genes. This is reported by researchers at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum together with colleagues from Basel, Trier and London for the first ...

Recommended for you

Protein found to be key component in irregularly excited brain cells

July 17, 2018
In a new study in mice, researchers have identified a key protein involved in the irregular brain cell activity seen in autism spectrum disorders and epilepsy. The protein, p53, is well-known in cancer biology as a tumor ...

World's largest study on allergic rhinitis reveals new risk genes

July 17, 2018
An international team of scientists led by Helmholtz Zentrum München and University of Copenhagen has presented the largest study so far on allergic rhinitis in the journal Nature Genetics. The data of nearly 900,000 participants ...

New platform poised to be next generation of genetic medicines

July 16, 2018
A City of Hope scientist has discovered a gene-editing technology that could efficiently and accurately correct the genetic defects that underlie certain diseases, positioning the new tool as the basis for the next generation ...

Overcoming a major barrier to developing liquid biopsies

July 16, 2018
The idea of testing blood or urine to find markers that help diagnose or treat disease holds great promise. But as technology has improved to allow researchers to examine tiny fragments of RNA, one major problem has led to ...

Genetic marker for drug risk in multiple sclerosis offers path toward precision medicine

July 16, 2018
A team of researchers has uncovered a specific gene variant associated with an adverse drug reaction resulting in liver injury in a people with multiple sclerosis (MS). It is the first time researchers have been able to establish ...

Researchers suggest new treatment for rare inherited cancers

July 16, 2018
Studying two rare inherited cancer syndromes, Yale Cancer Center (YCC) scientists have found the cancers are driven by a breakdown in how cells repair their DNA. The discovery, published today in Nature Genetics, suggests ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.