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Why only certain patients develop debilitating pain after spinal chord injury and whether structural brain changes are implicated remain unknown. The aim of this study was to determine if patients with chronic, neuropathic below-level pain have specific cerebral changes compared to those who remain pain-free. Voxel-based morphometry of high resolution, T1-weighted images was performed on three subject groups comprising patients with pain (SCI-P, n = 18), patients without pain (SCI-N, n = 12) and age- and sex-matched controls (n = 18). The SCI-P group was first compared directly with the SCI-N group and then subsequently with controls. Overall, grey and white matter changes dependent on the presence of pain were revealed. Significant changes were found within the somatosensory cortex and also in corticospinal tracts and visual-processing areas. When the SCI-P group was directly compared with the SCI-N group, reduced grey matter volume was found in the deafferented leg area of the somatosensory cortex bilaterally. This region negatively correlated with pain intensity. Relative to controls, grey matter in this paracentral primary sensory cortex was decreased in SCI-P but conversely increased in SCI-N. When compared with controls, discrepant corticospinal tract white matter reductions were found in SCI-P and in SCI-N. In the visual cortex, SCI-N showed increased grey matter, whilst the SCI-N showed reduced white matter. In conclusion, structural changes in SCI are related to the presence and degree of below-level pain and involve but are not limited to the sensorimotor cortices. Pain-related structural plasticity may hold clinical implications for the prevention and management of refractory neuropathic pain.

Original publication




Journal article


Neuroimage Clin

Publication Date





28 - 35


10.020: Structural MRI, 40.100: Systems Pain, 40.130: Systems Somatosensory, 50.140: Pain syndromes Other, 50.160: Spinal cord, 50.180: Trauma, ASIA, American Spinal Injury Association, BAI, Beck Anxiety Inventory, BDI, Beck Depression Inventory, GM, grey matter, SCI, spinal cord injury, SCI-N, spinal cord injury without pain, SCI-P, spinal cord injury with pain, VBM, voxel-based morphometry, WM, white matter, Adult, Aged, Atrophy, Brain, Female, Humans, Male, Middle Aged, Neuralgia, Organ Size, Pyramidal Tracts, Somatosensory Cortex, Spinal Cord Injuries