Korean J Physiol Pharmacol.  2016 Jan;20(1):1-8. 10.4196/kjpp.2016.20.1.1.

Neural circuit remodeling and structural plasticity in the cortex during chronic pain

  • 1Department of Physiology, College of Korean Medicine, Kyung Hee University, Seoul 02447, Korea. skkim77@khu.ac.kr


Damage in the periphery or spinal cord induces maladaptive plastic changes along the somatosensory nervous system from the periphery to the cortex, often leading to chronic pain. Although the role of neural circuit remodeling and structural synaptic plasticity in the 'pain matrix' cortices in chronic pain has been thought as a secondary epiphenomenon to altered nociceptive signaling in the spinal cord, progress in whole brain imaging studies on human patients and animal models has suggested a possibility that plastic changes in cortical neural circuits may actively contribute to chronic pain symptoms. Furthermore, recent development in two-photon microscopy and fluorescence labeling techniques have enabled us to longitudinally trace the structural and functional changes in local circuits, single neurons and even individual synapses in the brain of living animals. These technical advances has started to reveal that cortical structural remodeling following tissue or nerve damage could rapidly occur within days, which are temporally correlated with functional plasticity of cortical circuits as well as the development and maintenance of chronic pain behavior, thereby modifying the previous concept that it takes much longer periods (e.g. months or years). In this review, we discuss the relation of neural circuit plasticity in the 'pain matrix' cortices, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex and primary somatosensory cortex, with chronic pain. We also introduce how to apply long-term in vivo two-photon imaging approaches for the study of pathophysiological mechanisms of chronic pain.


Chronic pain; Neural circuit remodeling; Pain matrix; Structural synaptic plasticity; Two-photon microscopy
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